COE Faculty and Staff focus on student success during State of the School

Each year, the College of Education kicks off the new year with the State of the School — an event that celebrates the successes of the college of the past year, provides a report of program numbers, and gives faculty and staff a chance to address valuable topics for the upcoming year.

At this year’s event, student success was the focus. During the opening remarks, Dean Marvin Lynn gave those in attendance an important charge for the event, as well as the year to come.

“Our students are the singular most important aspect of this experience for us all,” he said. “I hope you will keep that in mind as we reflect on where we are and we are going as a community.”

Dean Lynn discussed the state of education at the national, state, and local levels, the challenges the industry faces in those areas, and how the COE’s new 3-year strategic helps address those challenges.

Following Dean Lynn’s remarks, faculty and staff went through an exercise to explore how to implement the strategic plan, focusing specifically on the imperative for student success. Each department was tasked with brainstorming ways to implement the values related to this important topic in our community. The values from the strategic plan are:

  • Inclusive: we are welcoming and equity-focused
  • Responsive: we mindfully serve our students and communities
  • Engaged: we are connected and collaborative partners
  • Creative: we are innovative and create knowledge
  • Impactful: we are data-driven, process-oriented, and accountable

Faculty and staff will now leverage these ideas to improve student success throughout the college. 

Dean Lynn ended the State of the School by acknowledging the dedication COE employees bring to their work. “Your presence and deep engagement is inspiring. As my previous comments indicated, we have much to do,” he said.  “But I believe we are poised to continue taking leadership in crucial ways. That is because of you and all the incredible work you continue to do.” 

PSU College of Education alumna named 2020 Oregon Regional Teacher of the Year

In her first term as an undergraduate at Portland State University, Mercedes Muñoz found herself homeless and on her own with her three children: an infant, a 7th-grader and a 2nd-grader. They were crowded into a motel room together, and Muñoz was trying to study for her finals.

“I was like: I’ve got to get finals done!” Muñoz said.

A first-generation college student, Muñoz rose through the academic ranks, starting with an associate degree at Portland Community College. Four years later, in 2013, she earned a bachelor’s in English and a minor in special education at PSU, along with a license to teach. She kept going, and in 2017, Muñoz received her Master of Education in Special Education and Teaching from the PSU College of Education (COE). She is one of two honorees this year; Jon Fresh is the other.

My (students) were so excited when they heard,” Muñoz said. “For them, it was like we have won. They were like, ‘She teaches us; that’s like winning.’”

She says that the Portland Teachers Program scholarship, which offers tuition support and mentorship, made it possible for her to be a teacher. Now, she has a roof over her head and a position at Franklin High School (FHS) as a Learning Center teacher and special education case manager. She’s also one of just 13 teachers in the state whom the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) has honored with a 2020 Oregon Regional Teachers of the Year award.

FHS senior Chris Two Two has had Muñoz a teacher for four years, and he said he wasn’t surprised when he heard the news about her award.

“When she got it, I was like, yeah, she deserved it because she helped a lot of people graduate and helped people stay in school,” Two Two said.

Senior Chris Two Two says he has had Mercedes Muñoz (right) as his teacher for four years, and he believes that she deserves recognition for all of the students she has helped.

According to the ODE, winning teachers were “assessed on leadership, instructional expertise, community involvement, understanding of educational issues, professional development and vision by a diverse panel of regional representatives.” The award, organized in partnership with the Oregon Lottery, includes a $500 prize and entry into the 2020 Oregon Teacher of the Year Award, which will be announced in September.

Muñoz does not know who nominated her for the regional honor, and she was humble enough that she assumed the nomination announcement in her email wasn’t genuine.

“I figured it was spam,” she said.

She did not respond for a month, and then after someone from ODE persuaded her that she was up for a major award, she speedily finished the essays that applicants must submit for consideration. She also received the necessary letters of recommendation quickly. But then, she has quite a few fans, including her colleagues.

Her colleague Gary Sletmoe, an FHS English teacher, said that it’s clear how much Munoz cares about her students and that “she is tough, but fair, and will fight for each student to be successful.”

Her students also believe in her.

“I think she’s a really good teacher,” said Emily Medina, a junior at FHS. “If you don’t understand something, she explains it to you in a way you understand. No matter how much you want to give up on something, she helps you keep moving on it. You need all these things to be able to graduate, and she doesn’t want you to fail.”

FHS junior Carol Dwyer said Munoz is special because she cares so much, and when students need support, she’s there for them.

“She asks if you’re having a bad day, a good day, and she checks in with you,” Dwyer said.

Muñoz said she has struggled like her students may have, so she often understands how they feel when life gets overwhelming.

“Part of what I bring to this community is authenticity and passion and hope,” Munoz said.

Because her focus is special education, she reaches a wide range of students with varying needs who come to her for support for classes of all types, including advanced placement courses. For her academic skills class, students study independently. Muñoz floats from desk to desk as students ask for help with how to craft and submit assignments that include historical reports, an exploration of Margaret Atwood’s work and a treatise analyzing Maya Angelou’s poetry.

Sletmoe said Muñoz is a great colleague, and her guidance helps students achieve in their other classes.

“When some students were struggling to write body paragraphs for their essay [for Sletmoe’s class], Mercedes came up with a ‘burger’ paragraph, using the visual of a cheeseburger to illustrate the necessary and different elements of a paragraph (topic sentence, analysis, etc.),” Sletmoe said. “I still tell students to ‘build the burger’ in class today when we are writing essays. Thanks to Mercedes, kids know what I mean!”

FHS English teacher Scott Aronson said that Muñoz has a comprehensive knowledge of each grade level.

“More importantly, she is kind and empathetic to the myriad struggles of our students, but she also holds them accountable for what they need to do in the classroom,” Aronson said. “She is extremely dedicated, and she doesn’t give up on any kid. She helps the kids who need help the most. She has been a tremendous resource for myself and others because of her ability to reach so many students.”

Even her emails evidence that belief in caring about others, with a quote at the bottom of each message from American philosopher Cornel West: “You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

Munoz said that’s how she approaches teaching. For her students, that philosophy shines through.

“She’s nice, and she’s the best,” Two Two said. “She helps us.”

To share story ideas about the College of Education, contact Jillian Daley at

The Power of Inclusion

Linnea Goranson, PSU College of Education staff member

Linnea Goranson said that one crucial thing she has learned in her 18 years working at Portland State University is that she doesn’t have to try to change who she is to fit in.

“I definitely feel I’m accepted and belong at PSU—‘to infinity and beyond,’” said Goranson, who is an office assistant in the College of Education (COE). “I feel like this is my second home. I believe that because the people I work with are family.”

In Prof. Shaheen Munir-McHill’s Families and Advocacy class earlier this month, Goranson shared her life story of working at PSU for almost two decades and growing up in Portland with her parents and three brothers. Munir-McHill’s class is a graduate-level special education course (SPED 530) for teacher candidates who are building bridges with families and learning how to teach students self-advocacy and self-determination skills, Munir-McHill explained.

As someone with Down syndrome, Goranson has had to remind others that she should be included in school activities and treated with the same respect as others in her daily life. Those who care about her have also advocated for her. Once when Goranson was an ailing infant, her mom had to persuade a doctor to give her care, as he was certain symptoms such as fatigue were related to Goranson’s disability. Turns out, Goranson had pneumonia in both lungs, and could have died without care. Her mother saved her life when she insisted on equal treatment.

But most of the experiences Goranson has had in life—exceling on the swim or basketball teams, working hard to make the honor roll at Lincoln High and West Sylvan Middle schools, or seeing dear co-workers come and go at the office—were powerful because they illustrated how she was, in so many ways, a typical kid growing up, even in the classroom.

“The teachers and students treated me just like any other student,” she said.

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Finding Hope: A Project to Help Bilingual Teachers Thrive in the Classroom

Prof. Esperanza De La Vega

What does it mean to be a bilingual teacher in the Portland metro area and Willamette Valley?

That’s a question that Prof. Esperanza De La Vega intends to address with her community research project, Finding Hope. For the autoethnographic project (qualitative research involving self-reflection and writing), De La Vega has been convening alumni from Portland State University’s Bilingual Teacher Pathway (BTP) program.

BTP was established 20 years ago to fill shortages of elementary bilingual teachers in the Portland metro area. The program involves recruiting school district employees who wish to become licensed teachers.

“Relationships and the sense of community spirit that come out of the program are a memorable part of the BTP experience,” De La Vega said.

The project brings together BTP alums for quarterly focus groups during which participants share their take on current events and their career experiences. De La Vega and her co-principal investigators (Profs. Moti Hara, Maciel Hernandez and Carrie Larson) launched the Finding Hope project to capture the voices and views of bilingual teachers and to then share the power of the BTP program with all of Oregon.

At a recent Finding Hope gathering, De La Vega discussed Sonia Nieto’s theory on what keeps teachers in the profession. Nieto believes it is love, hope, and an anger that spurs teachers to fight for students who struggle in poverty, racism, and a flawed education system.

“We, as teachers, have the responsibility to mirror back to students,” De La Vega said. “Lisa Delpit talked about seeing the brilliance and beauty in every student.”

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Spotlight: Quadruple Scholarship Winner Alexis Atwood

Alexis Atwood

Most students are lucky to receive one scholarship, but Portland State University’s Alexis Atwood has earned four of them.

Atwood won three scholarship earlier this year and just received the brand-new $5,000 Barbara Ruben Award for the Secondary Dual Educator Program (SDEP).

“I wrote a lot about equity and inclusivity in the classroom in my scholarship application, and the fact that I wrote about that and people heard that and wanted to support that is really incredible,” Atwood said.

The Ruben Award is for SDEP students. SDEP is a full-time, two-year graduate-level program for future teachers in the PSU College of Education (COE). SDEP grads receive a master’s degree in education and dual licensure in special education and a middle- or secondary-level content area, such as health.

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New Chair Starts This Week

Prof. Dilafruz Williams is taking on a new role in the College of Education.

Prof. Dilafruz Williams officially began as the new chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in Portland State University’s College of Education (COE) on Tuesday, September 3.

“As you know, she has worked as a faculty member and leader at PSU for many years,” COE Dean Marvin Lynn said. “In fact, she is one of the longest-serving faculty members in the College! We are so excited to have Dilafruz join the leadership team.”

Williams, a professor of Leadership for Sustainability Education who joined PSU in 1990, said that she is thrilled to reprise the role of chair, which she held from 2004-2007.

“I look forward to being of service to my colleagues and feel humbled by their confidence in me,” she said. “Having just returned after a year of sabbatical leave at Stanford as visiting scholar, I feel energized to share new ideas and my experiences.”

Williams has had a storied history while with the University. With her supporters and partners, she spearheaded initiatives such as: the Learning Gardens Laboratory and the Leadership for Sustainability Education master’s program.

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