National Award Recognizes Leadership of UH Special Populations Professor - University of Houston
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National Award Recognizes Leadership of UH Special Populations Professor

Associate Professor Jacquie Hawkins serves as director of the professional leadership — special populations Ed.D. program.

Posted Nov. 9, 2022 — Weekends you might find Jacqueline “Jacquie” Hawkins taking a break from grading or grant writing to stroll through a local farmer’s market. She’s a foodie, but she knows vegetables don’t have to be Instagram-ready to be good. Instead, she thinks about the labor that went into growing them.

That mindset is a throwback to her upbringing in a small Scottish fishing village where everyone was expected to contribute. Everyone’s efforts were valued, too.

“Equity was ingrained into us,” she said. “You didn’t denigrate others who were less capable. The expectation was you did your best.”

Those lessons inform her professional life as an associate professor of special populations and an Ed.D. program director at the University of Houston College of Education.

Hawkins’ leadership in transforming the College’s Ed.D. program to become more rigorous and relevant recently earned her national recognition from the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate. She received the organization’s 2022 David G. Imig Distinguished Service Award, honoring her teaching, advising and research over a 35-year career at UH.

“It has been the joy of my life to lead this kind of transformation of doctoral students,” Hawkins said upon accepting the award at CPED’s conference in October. “And I am very, very fortunate to have hundreds of doctoral graduates who now are Houston-based or internationally-based who are going out and using improvement science techniques to make the world more just.”

Improvement science is a problem-solving approach — say, how to help a student who is struggling to read — that involves testing solutions in real time to improve not only individual efforts but the overall system. One key? Repeat the cycle frequently and adjust action plans if needed. “It doesn’t take a year to figure out if you have done the wrong thing,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins’ work to match equity with academic rigor reflects the spirit of the University of Houston, said Robert McPherson, UH’s interim senior vice president for academic affairs and provost and former dean of the College of Education.

“Overseeing programmatic change at one of the nation’s most diverse public research institutions in the nation’s fourth-largest city, Dr. Hawkins has helped to advance educational equity to accelerate student success,” he said, noting that roughly two-thirds of the 1.2 million public schoolchildren in the greater Houston area are from historically marginalized populations.

Jacquie Hawkins (back row, second from right) gathers with colleagues and students after a UH presentation at the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate conference in Pittsburgh in October.

The College of Education’s professional leadership Ed.D. program offers specializations in various areas, including K-12, literacy and special populations. The special populations program faculty prepares professionals to work with children and adults with intellectual and other disabilities, as well as English language learners and gifted children. Mid-career teachers, school administrators and others such as nonprofit leaders represent the majority of the students.

Cathy Horn, interim dean of the College of Education, noted Hawkins’ exceptional commitment to mentoring students.

“She spends countless hours meeting with advisees working to ensure that they build strength and capacity and ultimately pride in the quality of their work,” Horn said. “Ultimately, Jacquie’s acts of mentorship are about building a cadre of colleagues ready to join her in work that seeks to address the most pressing challenges faced by our educational sectors.”

Hawkins advises about 25 doctoral students a year while also leading research projects to advance the field. Most recently, Hawkins is serving as principal investigator on a grant from the Powell Foundation to prepare teachers to identify and support students with dyslexia or mental health challenges. She’s also co-principal investigator on two grants from the U.S. Department of Education: one to improve reading outcomes for struggling students and another to prepare special education leaders to work in high-need schools.

“Research is a vehicle that helps with teaching,” she said. “I can’t improve practice by myself. I need an army of students out there.”

Monica Martens, who earned her Ed.D. in 2021 and now works with the special populations faculty as a program manager, said Hawkins helps students pursue research that aligns with their professional roles, ensuring the work is relevant for busy professionals.

“She gave me the time and space to find my own voice,” Martens said. “She has a real knack for understanding how to help students make progressive improvements over two or three years.”

Carolyn Henry, who completed her doctorate last spring, said she gained insights she was able to use in her role as director of instruction for special programs at Harmony Charter Schools. When analyzing standardized test scores, for example, she looks beyond passing and failure rates to focus on growth. “It’s not changing the data, but it’s a matter of presentation and motivating teachers,” she said.

Hawkins brings a more intangible quality to her role as advisor, as well. Henry entered the program in the fall of 2019, becoming part of the first pandemic cohort. She was working full time in a suddenly virtual world, a single mother with twin teenage daughters.

“There were times I thought, maybe this isn’t the best time to do this, and Dr. Hawkins encouraged me by seeing who I was and helping me to see how capable I was,” she said. “I’ve encountered a lot of challenges as far as completing school. Dr. Hawkins understood that as someone who came from a difficult background herself. We connected on that level, as far as persevering.”

Hawkins was a first-generation college student, relying on government grants and stipends to earn a degree in business and later an education degree in Aberdeen. Without the grants, she said, neither she nor her brothers would have been able to attend college and earn professional success.

She has spent the past four decades paying it forward.

She worked with students with intellectual disabilities as part of her teacher training, drawing upon her experiences as a child. “It wasn’t called special education when I was in school, but I did know I had gifts I was fortunate to have,” she said. “And my job was to help. I see special education and special populations and the Ed.D. as a way of helping other people look at things through a lens of improvement and how can we position ourselves to help people make the progress they want.”

She was teaching high school business when she met Don Hawkins, a Houston native and computer scientist who spent his career working for energy companies. The couple married and moved to Houston in the 1980s. 

Texas high schools, she soon discovered, weren’t looking for business teachers, so Hawkins enrolled in the UH master’s program with a focus on the high-demand area of special education. She later earned a doctorate in the field, also from the UH College of Education.

“I am extremely happy with the academic career I have been able to carve out at the University of Houston,” she said. “You have to grow where you’re planted.”

—By Jeannie Kever

—Photos by Velvette Laurence (top photo) and courtesy image