BU News

Doctoral student has global perspective on special education needs

December 15, 2014

Zhanna Berkin Preston

Zhanna Preston can’t help having a global outlook.

Born and raised in Kazakhstan, she has pursued her education in Moscow, Russia, Arizona, the former Chapman University College branch (now Brandman) in San Diego and at Brandman’s Riverside campus. She’ll be making use of that global perspective when she presents a paper this summer in Poland to the International Association of Special Education.

Using the organizational and research skills she learned while working toward her doctorate of education in organizational leadership, Preston has devised a study that will survey employers in the private sector, special education teachers and job coaches about the work skills needed for young adults with disabilities to be successfully employed after they graduate from high school. She’ll use that data to make specific curriculum recommendation in her role as executive director of special education for the Murrieta Valley Unified School District.

Her presentation in Poland will emphasize the process for gathering and using data to guide decision-making.  Helping special education students make the transition from school to work is a big topic, she said, not just in the U.S. but in each of the 35 countries that will be represented at the conference.

“Our jobs in public education have changed because of technology and data, which are also driving educational reform,” said Preston. “Everything I have learned through my coursework has been extremely helpful for preparing this paper. Feedback I got from my instructors was critical in helping me develop my writing style and research approach.”

Dr. Philip Pendley, Preston’s doctoral adviser, and one of several people she cites for helping her develop enough confidence to present a paper at an international conference, said it’s her world view that sets her apart from other students.

“She really thinks more broadly and more internationally. The nice thing about Zhanna is, once you provide her with a little direction, she takes it and runs with. I have no doubt that she’ll be successful,” said Pendley.

Preston’s interest in the international conference began in the build up to the conference held two years ago in Canada. The international scope intrigued her but she didn’t think she was ready to prepare a paper. Her Brandman courses gave her the confidence to submit her proposal this time.

The topic of successfully transitioning students with disabilities has been her passion for years. After talking to counselors, special education teachers and parents attending workshops in her school district, she discovered that all three groups shared the same concern about a lack of employment opportunities for recent graduates.

“As a school district, we provide instruction to special education students on community and work skills required for them to obtain and keep jobs. As the employment market evolves, we need to keep up with those changes, and need to base our instruction on current data we gather from directly from employers.,” she said.

Preston is currently working on the last chapters of her dissertation, but hopes to continue conducting education research after she receives her doctorate degree. “I would like to publish as many papers as I can and I have a couple of book ideas. I’m always looking for ways to collaborate with other agencies and school districts.”

Preston also credits the community of fellow doctoral students and instructors for her confidence in both, working as a public school administrator and conducting educational research.

“I have learned so much by being part of my Brandman EDD cohort. I was very fortunate to learn alongside of some of the most motivated, goal-oriented, and creative cohort members who strived to provide cutting edge educational opportunities for students. I have learned as much from my amazing cohort, as I have from the outstanding Brandman instructors. When applying to the doctoral program I didn’t realize how enriching and satisfying it can be,” said Preston, who especially valued the technological expertise of some of her classmates and their willingness to share information.

Recently honored as the Certificated Administrator of the Year in her district, Preston also credits the leadership skills she’s learned through coursework and interactions with her cohort mentor, other instructors, and fellow students. “The relationships and connections will last long after the program is completed”, she said.

Preston returned to school after a 12-year gap, waiting for her daughters to enter high school before starting the doctoral program. Brandman’s online courses allowed her to structure her time to include a career, family, and studies.

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