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Doctoral Educational Leadership Program Continues to Thrive During Challenging Time


Ask almost anyone and they will tell you that 2020 has been a year full of challenges.

As we approach the time of year when we reflect on life’s blessings, 2020 may seem like a year when many of us have little to celebrate. However, Donna Jahnke, Ph.D., assistant professor in educational leadership, noted that, "the educational leadership faculty and the School of Education are thankful that despite 2020 being one of the most difficult times in many educators’ careers, a record number of students entered the educational leadership doctoral cohorts starting in the fall of 2020."

The educational leadership program at Saint Louis University's School of Education is a long-standing, highly-respected graduate program preparing educational leaders through a professional educational doctorate. The Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership is designed to prepare students to become executive-level educational leaders. The public school leadership concentration prepares students to become district-level administrators while the Catholic concentration is designed for leaders in Catholic education. 

Innovative Format

There is a long history of educating doctoral students in educational leadership at SLU. Some of the first doctoral degrees were awarded in the 1920s to religious sisters, many of whom became nationally recognized leaders in Catholic education. For over twenty-five years, SLU’s educational leadership faculty offered doctoral degrees in a cohort format in cities throughout Missouri.

Within the past five years, Saint Louis University initiated doctoral degrees in Catholic school leadership in cities located in the Jesuit Province’s central and southern regions, which includes states in the south and the lower Midwest. Traditionally, faculty traveled to cities outside the St. Louis metropolitan area to teach educational leadership students in person because of the emphasis placed on close mentoring, professional connections and student support. This year, faculty are offering synchronous classes taught through Zoom due to COVID-related travel restrictions. However, they look forward to teaching classes in person again.

"I am thrilled to have been able to start a large Ed.D. Catholic school cohort both here in St. Louis and in Texas," said John James, Ed.D., director of SLU’s Institute for Catholic Education. “Once we get past COVID, I look forward to traveling to Dallas and Houston where I can teach students in person."

Noteworthy Alums

There are many similarities between the Catholic and public education doctoral degrees. Both are scholar/practitioner focused programs emphasizing practical implementation and best practices in educational leadership rooted in scholarly research. The public and Catholic school leadership classes emphasize a commitment to social justice, particularly related to supporting students from marginalized communities.

Most notably, both programs have produced graduates who have become leaders in their respective fields. In 2018 and 2019, Missouri superintendents of the year were alumni of SLU’s doctoral program. Likewise, Margie Vandeven, Ph.D., Commissioner of Education for the State of Missouri, is an alumna of the educational leadership program at SLU.

Saint Louis University’s Catholic educational leadership program provided the training for Sr. Caroleen Hensgen, the first female Catholic school superintendent in the United States, for the Diocese of Dallas. The program also trained Sr. Clare Fitzgerald, who went on to serve as the founding Director of the Catholic leadership programs at Boston College.

Student – Faculty Connection

A hallmark of both programs is the close connections between students and faculty. Jody Wood, Ed.D., program director for doctoral students studying public educational leadership, is thrilled she and her faculty are offering doctoral degrees in St. Louis, Jefferson City and Kansas City. Wood reflected on how focused new and current students are on improving education for all students.

“Their enthusiasm inspires us all! We are excited to have this opportunity to engage with such brilliant minds focused on changing the world,” Wood said.

Molly Kleiber
Molly Kleiber

Molly Kleiber, a new doctoral student in the St. Louis Ed.D. cohort who is one of five driver education teachers from throughout the United States selected as a Teacher of Excellence, shared her excitement about starting SLU’s doctoral program. Kleiber indicated she attended several universities in the St. Louis area prior to coming to SLU.

“None of the programs compare to the experience at Saint Louis University," she said. "I thought a large school like SLU would not give me support and attention or get to know me as a person. I was pleasantly surprised to learn the exact opposite. From the moment I applied at SLU, the staff reached out and got to know me and helped me every step of the way. I have never known more about my professors or felt like I was part of a school community like I do at SLU. The SLU leadership cohort is like my second family and I feel so connected to the school, staff, and my peers more than I have at any other college. This is by far the best college experience I have ever had in my educational career. I am not only proud to tell people I am attending SLU, but I love attending SLU. It is the best decision I have ever made for myself and my family.”

Clare Abkemeier
Clare Abkemeier

Clare Abkemeier graduated from the Catholic school master’s program several years ago and currently serves as principal at Saint Margaret of Scotland Grade School in St. Louis. When she thought about where to earn her doctoral degree, she chose to return to Saint Louis University’s Institute for Catholic Education because it is one of the few leadership programs geared to Catholic school leadership.

“Catholic school leaders are not just the educational leader but also the spiritual leader of the school," Abkemeier said.  "The educational leadership at SLU prepares you for both. The thing that has benefited me the most are the connections, friendships, and community this program creates.”

After months of social distancing and staying home, the value of supportive professional connections and close friends is more apparent than it has ever been. 

"We think of the School of Education at SLU as more than a place to earn a high-quality education, but also a place of community," said Sally Beth Lyon, Ed.D., assistant professor in educational leadership.  "We look forward to walking with students on their educational journey, challenging them to be their best, and cheering them on when they meet their career goals after graduation.”

For more information about the educational leadership programs in the School of Education, contact or 314-977-3292.