Ferris preparing to debut new masters degree

October 23, 2011
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Ferris State University is preparing to unveil a new advanced degree. The school’s marketing campaign for its Master of Science in Educational Leadership will soon be underway.

The program, which was recently approved by the Michigan Department of Education, is directed at students who desire to become elementary and high school principals. But, for all practical purposes, the degree is largely geared to students who want to rise to that leadership level or higher in a specific type of school district.

“It’s a master’s for someone who wants to become a building-level administrator in a rural school district. It could be for an urban school district, too, but we kind of specialize in the rural because of our location,” said Michelle Johnston, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Ferris, from her campus office in Big Rapids.

Placing an emphasis on rural districts might seem questionable at first glance, seeing there are more openings for administrators in heavily populated urban districts across the state than in country settings — and more potential openings could result in a larger enrollment for the program. But Ferris’ program makes more sense when one considers that a need for such a degree exists, and creating one has been overlooked until FSU decided to fill the void.

“What we really want the educator to do is have experiences with solving a principal’s problems. If we were in Grand Rapids, for example, someone who wants to be a principal and would be interested in this master’s could go to somebody else’s building nearby,” said Johnston.

Johnston based that remark on her own experience. Early in her educational career, Johnston was a reading consultant and in charge of the reading program in the Warren Woods Public Schools district, with 10 elementary schools in a single square mile. If she wanted to become a principal, she had many opportunities to choose from in that urban district.

“In a rural area, though, there might be only one K-12 in the whole town. So we wanted to look at different ways to make sure people get experiences working with other school leaders, and we will focus on that and on some of the problems of the rural schools,” she said, adding that the isolation of rural districts is a problem all its own.

Depending on the academic status of a student, those enrolled in the Master of Science in Educational Leadership program will need to earn 33 to 36 credits to complete it. As for the program’s curriculum, the state board has prescribed most of its courses, including classes in technology, budgeting, finance, curriculum development, assessment, employee performance evaluation and being able to engage the public through communications.

In a very real sense, those courses are more vital for students who want to work in a rural district because in urban districts, principals often have staffers who develop curriculum, evaluate staff and faculty and perform public relations functions. But in a rural district, a principal, or even a superintendent, is more likely to have to take on most, if not all, of those tasks.

“I used to be the director of the leadership consortium for Northern Michigan, which had 77 school districts, and you could always tell the rural principals from the urban ones because they had these giant key chains,” said Johnston with a slight chuckle. “A rural superintendent would even have the bus garage keys, and I used to tease them about that.”

Johnston said it took about a year for the state board to approve the master’s program. The process was a fairly lengthy one that involved multiple communications between Big Rapids and Lansing regarding curriculum. The school of education designed the program with plenty of assistance from practicing principals.

“We asked them what they would need to solve the problems in their job,” said Johnston.

In fact, an associate FSU professor, Cheryl Thomas, was instrumental in its development. Thomas is a former high school principal.

“It’s really a very practical orientation that is directed at how they can do their jobs in the very best way they could do their jobs in their settings,” said Johnston.

Classes will be held on FSU’s main campus in Big Rapids and also will be offered online at ferris.edu. Johnston said classes also might be offered at FSU’s downtown Grand Rapids campus.

“We’re just beginning to look for students and we’re just beginning to market it,” she said. “And we typically offer these courses on the weekends.”

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