By SHANNON O. WELLS
An elementary school teacher focusing on social-emotional learning in the classroom may feel she’s connecting with students, but during recess or play time observe situations where the lessons aren’t being applied. Another teacher has a student who performs strongly in classroom activities but falls short on assessment tests and wonders what’s creating the gap.
These are among the learning-based scenarios that have kept Jill Sarada passionate and focused on her roles at the Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School at Pitt’s School of Education since 1995. Following a national search, Sarada — Falk’s former assistant director for elementary grades learning and interim co-director — was recently appointed as the school’s director. She started her new position July 1, becoming the first woman to lead the school in its 90-year history.
“I am happy to welcome Jill Sarada as the next director of our Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School,” said Valerie Kinloch, dean of the School of Education and chair of the director search committee. “As our new director, Jill will be responsible for leading with strategic vision as she fosters academic excellence, strengthens Falk’s overall community, and among other priorities, ensures Falk’s successful financial future.”
Founded in 1931, the Falk School serves as an independent K-8 laboratory school with an enrollment of about 436 students. It is perched high on the Pitt campus at 4060 Allequippa St.
Given her position as Falk School’s interim co-director with Joanna Newlin, assistant director of middle school grades, Sarada has a substantial head start in what she wants to achieve. Still, she’s far from blasé about the transition.
“I am very excited, and I’ve got a great, incredibly dedicated team, … not just of faculty but also of staff that really believe in the mission and the philosophy of the school,” she says. “And that just makes it even more exciting.”
Sarada succeeds Jeff Suzik, director from 2014 to 2021, who left to become director of Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
With Sarada pursuing a doctor of education degree through Pitt’s Educational Leadership Program and her children at college age, she finds the timing close to ideal for her new role.
“That learning has really supported my desire and passion to return to the lab school mission,” she says of her doctoral studies. “I have always loved working at Falk because of the focus on reflection and questioning and ensuring that we’re doing the best we can for students (as well as) the mission to be engaged in learning with others about what is best for students: learning from other schools, learning from one another.”
With this transitional period wrapped up, Sarada says she’s prepared to further her goals as director, including engaging the school in more research, strengthening external partnerships, and deepening Falk’s commitment to equity, inclusion and justice. Sarada, who also serves as president of the International Association of Laboratory Schools, is particularly passionate about enhancing Falk School’s role as a “living lab” as envisioned by education pioneer John Dewey. He espoused classroom democracy, student engagement and inquiry as essential for meaningful learning.
“I can really step forward into this role of director … and dedicate time and effort towards the lab school mission and vision,” Sarada says, citing her 27 years at Falk and role at the association. “It’s something I’m passionate about … which is about the living lab, thinking about teacher training, but also innovation and experimentation and research, and contributing to education and learning in general.”
Sarada wants to re-evaluate the tendency for lab schools, including Falk, to focus on teacher training more than research. The innovation and experimentation that research can lead to, Sarada explains, don’t always mesh with the mission of training teachers to serve a broad range of school districts.
“What we might be able to do here with learning experiences may not translate to some districts that (determine) teachers cannot have these lessons or read these books,” she says, noting the trend in some districts to limit or prohibit discussion of gender diversity or LGBTQ rights. “There’s this competing demand sometimes between research and teacher training that has made it difficult to really explore that mission. But there are some lab schools that are really good at it.”
For practical purposes, Sarada wants to encourage Falk School teachers to observe, document and share the disconnects they find between teaching and students’ “real-world” applications that may be worthy of study or publication.
“We’re using the tools of research to kind of dive into ‘where’s that gap happening? Let’s make a small change. Let’s see what evidence shows us’ and then the teachers learning it,” she explains. “It can become something she uses for herself, but then the students benefit. And as she shares that with other teachers, they benefit. And if we publish it eventually, it’s what lab schools should be doing.”
With her family excited for her new professional adventure, Sarada is enjoying the moment while considering where her long commitment to the Falk School now leads. “My family is super supportive,” she says. “They know how passionate I am about children and their learning experiences and how we honor them and respect them. So, they see this as being the right step.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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