As faculty, staff, and students at CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development (SEHD) celebrate their 50th anniversary, their jobs have never been more important. The nation faces a historic shortage of teachers and other education professionals from school psychologists and counselors to technology specialists and leaders. The pandemic disrupted education in many places and recent federal data shows learning gaps in reading and mathematics have increased.
In this critical moment in Colorado and across the nation, SEHD is needed because of its excellence in preparing educational professionals and its culturally responsive and innovative approach, which has earned it national recognition.
U.S. News and World Report has ranked SEHD as a top graduate school. Its programs to address shortages in rural areas and the city, as well as an alternative teacher licensure program, have also been recognized for their success. These accolades have been achieved because of the school’s bold approach to preparing educators, a tradition from its earliest days. More than 17,500 individuals are alumni and they are examples of the quality of the programs.
“The School of Education & Human Development has always been known for being at the crux of innovation and advancement,” said SEHD Dean Marvin Lynn. “Partnerships are the key to everything that we do in the field of education, and in the human development field as well. Our communities understand that we have the ability and the interest to meet their needs.”
Pioneers from the Start
Professor Alan Davis joined CU Denver in fall of 1989, when SEHD was still housed in North Classroom. Davis had been a high school teacher before getting his PhD in research and methodology. When a colleague asked him to teach at CU Denver, he was quick to agree. “I have always believed that education was the key to helping people achieve the American Dream,” he said. A professor of research methodology, nearly all of Davis’s research has been in partnership with school districts in the Denver area. He’s studied retention and graduation in Denver Public Schools, effective schools and classrooms for English language learners, career aspirations of ninth graders, digital storytelling and identity development, and most recently conceptual learning in elementary mathematics.
Davis learned about the school’s early days, when it was a satellite location of the University of Colorado Boulder. Fernie Baca—the sister of Polly Baca, who was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1974 and known as a trailblazer in Latina politics in Denver—joined the school in 1976. Baca helped champion the school’s focus on bilingual education and to serving the needs of students who were learning English as a second language. “We started off with that, and we’ve continued it, and grown it, and expanded it with a focus on cultural responsiveness,” Davis said. “It’s in the genes of our school.”
In the 1990s, under the leadership of then Dean G. Thomas Bellamy, the school began training teachers in partnership with local school districts. “A long time ago, we rejected the traditional model,” Davis said. “We drew on John Goodlad’s book Educational Renewal: Better Teachers, Better Schools as a model for teacher training that would start teacher candidates working in schools from day one.”
The student teachers would immediately begin attending K-12 schools, first observing, then assisting and running small groups, and eventually leading the classroom. This was a new approach because most programs at the time wouldn’t let student teachers in the classroom until they have gone through several college courses.
Over the years, Davis has seen the school’s model evolve and expand from partnerships with local metro area school districts, including Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools, to rural communities. Equity and diversity have remained core values of the school’s mission. There were just two faculty of color in 2003. In 2018 there were 16 and in 2021 there were 45 faculty and 27 staff members of color.
“I think one of our strengths has always been to really acknowledge and believe that what you teach and how you teach has to respond to the students that are before you in your classroom,” Davis said. “You want the students to engage with what they are learning because they see their own experience in their teachers.”
From a Student Lens
The school curriculum, emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion and experiential learning at SEHD is what set the school apart, for many students and alumni.
Graduate student Karely Nava Chavez initially enrolled at CU Denver as an undergraduate with hopes of becoming a nurse. She chose the university because she could live at home and commute to campus, saving her family money. Chavez, who attended Aurora Public Schools, is pursuing a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) and has been working with a bilingual school psychologist in the district, where she interacts with students from various backgrounds and is getting a taste for her future career as a school psychologist.
“I want to work in a school in a district like Aurora Public Schools, which is filled with diverse languages and immigrant refugee populations,” said Chavez, who will graduate in 2026. “I feel like I can relate to the multicultural population and connect with the students who have been underserved by the system.” Chavez remembers how her parents, who emigrated from Mexico and only spoke Spanish, struggled to get involved in her education when she was in grade school. There weren’t enough translators, she said. “Language is such a huge component of how you connect with people,” Chavez said.
She’s especially grateful to the faculty at SEHD because they helped her find her calling. She started off as a pre-nursing student, until she met Professor René Galindo, who at the time had served in the SEHD for more than 30 years. “I couldn’t imagine putting an IV in someone’s arm, so I wanted to see what I could do to help people that wasn’t in the medical capacity,” Chavez said. “That’s when I met Dr. Galindo, who took me under his wing and introduced me to human development and family relations.”
Chavez pursued her undergraduate degree in psychology with a minor in human development and family relations because of the hands-on learning and emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. “It was psychology, but applied in family contexts,” she said. “I took all of those things that I learned and used them in real-life situations in the community.”
Amanda Westenberg Soliván was no stranger to the classroom when she applied to the SEHD’s Leadership for Education Organizations program in order to get a principal’s license. She worked in Aurora Public Schools at the time—she was named Colorado Teacher of the Year in 2013—which meant her schedule was packed. She appreciated the small class sizes, flexibility, peer-to-peer connection, and guest lecturers offered through the licensure program. SEHD and its faculty and community partners played a critical role in her future, she said.
“People from Littleton Public Schools and Jeffco Public Schools came and presented to our class,” she recalled. “Each school district is its own microcosm, and when you have an opportunity to meet the people, it’s helpful to know what their focus is and how they speak about education.”
After she received her principal’s license through SEHD in 2013, Soliván worked as an assistant principal in Aurora Public Schools and overseas at an international school in Abu Dhabi, and at Denver Schools of Science and Technology as a senior manager of teacher development, among other positions in education. She’s grateful for the doors that have opened and connections she’s made in part because of to her principal’s license from SEHD. “Becoming a principal isn’t the only job,” she emphasized. “You can work in administration in a school district office or in the field of curriculum development…. [The license] is a window of opportunity and growth.”
Looking Ahead to the Next 50 Years
As SEHD looks ahead to its next 50 years, Lynn is committed to his school’s people, who are changemakers and innovators in the education field. “We have a number of faculty and staff who are very situated within the context of community and see outreach as an important part of their work,” he said. “Our administrative leaders and faculty are willing to be flexible and think outside the box.”
While his school has matured over the last 50 years, he sees many opportunities for continued growth and deeper connections with surrounding communities. He will continue to prioritize DEI in everything the school does, make data-driven decisions in areas such as curriculum and enrollment, and find ways to promote and advance the culture of creativity in his school. The goal is to offer more pathways, including undergraduate and graduate degrees and alternative licenses, to get more students into schools and community-based settings—where they are critically needed.
“Our faculty is courageously preparing education leaders—and those leaders will have great impact in our communities,” Lynn said. He knows this because he has personally experienced the value and importance of education opportunity. “It was teachers who stood in the gap for me and helped me craft a vision for my life that went beyond my wildest dreams.”