Advocating for Delaware students
Photo by Evan Krape April 06, 2020
UD public policy fellow works for the State Board of Education
When she was an elementary school student in the town of East Williston on Long Island, Jamie Forrest watched as her peers obsessed over the Harry Potter book series. Forrest longed to join them in this wizarding world, where cloaks render you invisible, cards shuffle themselves and the morning newspaper is delivered via owl. But Forrest, who said she thinks she may have been suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia, struggled to read. In other words: she felt like a muggle — a non-magical person, in Harry Potter parlance.
Forrest’s efforts to improve were fraught. In the classroom, she dreaded so-called popcorn exercises in which students took turns reading out loud. Her only option? To sink into her chair at the back of the room, quietly wishing for one of those invisibility cloaks. For several years, this was how Forrest regarded school: “Traumatizing.” Until, that is, her fourth-grade teacher intervened.
“She told me: ‘I know you’re smart, and I know you’re going to accomplish great things,’ ” Forrest said. “She handed me a book — something easy like See Spot Run — and told me to take it home, that one day I’d be reading Harry Potter with my friends. This was an important gesture. It let me know that someone cared.”
Today, Forrest is hoping to inspire a new generation of students. Forrest graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in human services in the College of Education and Human Development and is working toward a master’s degree in public administration at UD. As part of her program, she serves as a Public Administration Fellow through the Institute for Public Administration. In this role — performed remotely since the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus — she conducts research that informs the work of Delaware’s State Board of Education, a lay body that helps shape education policy, as well as the P-20 Council, dedicated to strengthening educational practice in the state.
One of Forrest’s recent projects involved teacher recruitment and retention. With the country experiencing a teacher shortage, she looked into best practices for encouraging people to enter the field of education — and remain. Forrest investigated campaigns happening in other states — from financial incentives to networking initiatives — and compiled a report on significant findings. Also, in an effort to understand professor expectations of incoming, first-year students, she spent time analyzing the syllabi of entry-level English courses from Delaware colleges. She then compared this curriculum with the syllabi of English courses taken by Delaware’s high school seniors, and she determined where gaps in college readiness may arise.
Not surprisingly, Forrest’s favorite research projects focus on literacy — namely, early childhood intervention reading programs. She digs into which strategies are most effective for dyslexic pupils.
“There are students who are slipping through the cracks and going unnoticed,” she said. “My passion is figuring out what we can do to change that.”
Post-college, Forrest always envisioned returning to her native New York, but her public administration program has convinced her to stay put after graduation this May. In a small state, she said, there is a sense of community among those in the education trenches. There’s also the sense that real, positive change is less moonshot, more slam dunk.
“It’s not easy to fix education,” said Forrest, who has worked as a certified reading interventionist at New Castle Elementary School. “But in my experience, everyone in Delaware — professionals and legislators — really care. People are showing up. And that’s the first step. People need to show up.”
The University, she added, helps usher positive change by facilitating networking opportunities for policy makers and educators. Case in point: Forrest’s fellowship came about because Jenna Ahner, executive director of the State Board of Education and a 2014 graduate of UD, spoke about her work in one of Forrest’s classes. Afterward, the two connected over coffee, and a new mentor-mentee relationship was born.
“I love this school and I’m so grateful for the opportunities it’s afforded me,” Forrest said. “I’d stay here forever if I could.”
A desire to stay in school forever… it is exactly what you’d expect to hear from a Ravenclaw, the uber-nerdy Harry Potter characters with whom Forrest most identifies. Just as her fourth-grade teacher predicted, she did eventually devour every book in the series. In just four weeks, she read all 4,224 pages.
“Because someone was there for me, I developed a love for reading and writing,” she said. “Now, I want to ensure there’s someone there for every student. That’s my passion.”