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‘Belonging in Education’: Sarah Gentile Looks to Improve Experiences for All Students
Sarah Gentile G’03, G’22 describes herself as passionate about equity, inclusion, dignity and belonging in education. Already director of fine arts for the West Genesee Central School District in Camillus, Gentile recently became the district’s coordinator of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), a position that will benefit from her Ed.D. in educational leadership, when she graduates in December.
“West Genesee is trying to become diversified and more understanding of equity issues,” says Gentile, explaining her new DEI position. “Our superintendent decided that someone was needed to coordinate district-wide DEI initiatives and lead action planning, so that we are all moving in the same direction.”
Working Toward Equity
Fittingly, Gentile’s doctoral studies—taken through the School of Education’s Department of Teaching and Leadership—bring together her joint passions of arts and equitable education. “I’m studying leadership actions that support equity in arts education, looking at programs that already are working toward equity, so that other schools can learn from them.”
Specifically, Gentile says her research examines data about how school districts’ populations are reflected in arts education participation and how curricula can become more inclusive of different identities. This includes re-examining traditional Western ideas of who “the greats” are. Or, as Gentile puts it, “So we can move away from old, dead, white guys.”
Even before she began her doctor of education studies, Gentile was working on data-driven approaches to equitable arts education as a founding member of a Syracuse-area school’s equity team. This team got its start as a collaboration between Syracuse University and the Syracuse City School District (SCSD), where Gentile worked first as a music teacher—while taking her M.Mus. in music education from the School of Education—and then as supervisor of fine arts.
“SCSD curriculum leaders were brought together with Syracuse University professors to have conversations toward understanding each other’s departments,” Gentile recalls. “A group of us became interested in issues of equity and of student participation in fine arts, athletics, and advanced courses.”
As team members moved to other schools, so those additional local districts—including West Genesee and Jamesville-DeWitt—became part of the equity team. Adds Gentile, “There has definitely been some improvement in the city school district thanks to our analysis and the development of data-driven initiatives in arts and athletics.”
Perfect In So Many Ways
Asked why she chose the School of Education’s educational leadership doctoral program, Gentile exclaims, “I love learning. There’s a joke in my family that I can’t stay away from going to school!”
However, as she researched programs, Gentile says she couldn’t find a good fit for her interests. That’s until she heard from Professor George Theoharis about SOE’s re-imagined educational leadership offering. “It was perfect in so many ways. At Syracuse, I could study both leadership and equity. Plus, it was local—and it has the ‘cohort sequence.’”
“Our reimagined Ed.D. program is built on the three-year cohort sequence for part-time students who are also full-time school leaders,” explains Theoharis. “This is an intentional design, with students moving through the final three years of the doctorate with a cohort of peers. We know that peer and faculty supports are lacking in many doctoral programs. Our cohort sequence enables students completing their degree to feel supported while facing the grueling combination of doctoral work and full-time school leadership.”
“Sarah Gentile is exactly the kind of student our Ed.D. program is designed to serve,” adds Theoharis.
“The cohort sequence helps us keep each other on track,” observes Gentile. “Friends of mine who are taking Ed.D. degrees elsewhere say they got a bit lost when it was time to write the dissertation. But at Syracuse, our cohort remains together in a one-credit survey class, and that is very helpful during the dissertation stage. There have been times when I’ve not been motivated to write, but then I have my colleagues to lean on. I just can’t say enough about the cohort model.”
Confidence About the Future
The importance of collaboration and feedback are among the lessons Gentile says she has taken from her Ed.D. studies. “I’ve learned about the importance of different viewpoints when doing equity work and about honoring those viewpoints,” she says. “We have to teach teachers that there’s not just one answer. Equitable education is layered and complicated, but we can all get there together and improve experiences for all students.”
Professor Theoharis sees that Gentile’s experience and passion for the arts have become clearly aligned with her larger focus on creating equitable schools. “Sarah has an expansive understanding that the arts are an essential avenue for reaching the diversity of students in our schools, and therefore schools must provide rich opportunities and robust access for students who are currently—and historically—not involved in the arts.”
Reflecting on how she uses knowledge gained through her doctoral studies in her role as West Genesee’s DEI coordinator, there’s a lot of confidence about the future. Young teachers especially, says Gentile, are the ones “itching for a change.”
“They see the world and the changes that are needed, and often they have already done work around DEI themes,” Gentile explains. “Sometimes veteran teachers need some pushing and prodding to move along, but definitely some are all about this work. Attitudes toward DEI are often based on an individual’s identity and experiences.”