National Urban Special Education Leadership Initiative

An education Doctoral Program for Urban Leadership in Special Education



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Dr. Leigh Austin

Leigh Austin: Children have been at the center of much of my career from Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich publisher as a producer of multi-media instructional content for the textbooks to Disney Interactive as a producer of animated storybooks for Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Orange County Public Schools in Orlando where I currently serve as the Director of Exceptional Student Education. In this role, I lead teams toward excellence for secondary curriculum and instruction as well as transition support following high school. I am very excited to be offered the opportunity through the National Urban Special Education Leadership Initiative to further my interest in course development in the form of games with embedded accommodations for students with disabilities. I already have support from my middle school son who has volunteered to be a peer game tester. Let the doctoral program begin! (-)

Dr. Ingrid Cumming

Ingrid Cumming: Shortly after starting college I was requested to meet with a career counselor because I enrolled as "undecided" as my major. I recall the meeting clearly where I felt I was being steered to a career that didn't align with my interests and professional goals. I was adamant in my desire to be a champion for others and to make a difference. As I continued my search for a college major I enrolled in classes for exceptional student education and I found my calling. Now in my 20th year as a teacher in exceptional education I take pride in the impact that I have made and that I have fulfilled my calling.

Currently I am a district instructional support teacher for Transition Services in Orange County Public Schools' exceptional student education department. Prior I have held positions as an ESE instructional support teacher for curriculum and have previously taught in high school, middle school, and alternative school settings. My desire to pursue a doctorate degree came after I served a year as the UCF Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute's Educator in Residence. This opportunity afforded me the chance to work closely with College of Education and Human Performance faculty members in their research and project initiatives as well as provide professional learning opportunities to students and pre-service teachers and discuss the "realities" facing classroom teachers. This opportunity at UCF sparked in me the desire to continue my education. When I researched NUSELI and spoke with current enrollees, past graduates, and faculty members I knew the program was a fit for me to further my impact on individuals with disabilities and their families.

I'm proud to be a UCF Knight and have completed my undergraduate degrees in Exceptional Education and Interdisciplinary Studies. I've also completed a master of education degree in Education Leadership and will graduate with my doctorate degree in December 2015. I am married to my husband John for 20+ years and we have two children, Alex and Jillian. (-)

Dr. Hannah Ehrli

Hannah Ehrli, M.A.: is a National Board Certified teacher of ten years in Exceptional Education. She has served Exceptional Learners in Pre K to 5th grade in self-contained and resource classrooms. She is currently teaching a pilot Pre-K ASD Unit on a Orlando Public School High School Campus. She received her Masters of Arts degree from the University of Central Florida in Varying Exceptionalities and is also certified in ESOL, Elementary Education, and Pre-K with Disabilities. She also holds an endorsement in Autism from UCF. She is excited to have the opportunity to continue her professional development as a Doctorate student in the National Urban Special Education Leadership Initiative (NUSELI) .She has presented in Eastern Europe for teachers and therapists on Best Practice in Special Education for the past three years and is a member of the CEC, Division of International Special Education Services (DISES). She received the Florida 2010 Teacher of the Year Award from the Florida Council for Exceptional Children and is the 2012 International National CEC Clarissa Hug Teacher of the Year. She credits her mission of teaching to her husband and 2 wonderful children. Dr. Ehrli graduated in August 2015 as well as receiving the Order of Pegasus 2015. (-)

Dr. Chris Elliott

Chris Elliott: Master teacher committed to universal design for learning principles and belief that all students can learn in an environment with proper instructional design, teaching strategies, and mentoring. Doctoral training in curriculum and instruction as well as ten years of professional experience in academic/program management and teaching positions in secondary and higher education settings. Areas of expertise include program management, particularly for special education; child development including special education learning theory and best practices; curriculum design and sequencing using Atlas mapping; instructional design based on Bloom's taxonomy; teacher training and development; negotiating and mentoring in academic settings; and community partnership building. Areas of research interest include executive functioning skills of students with disabilities and behavioral psychology. (-)

Dr. Ian Gesundheit

Dr. Ian Gesundheit: is currently the principal of John Young Elementary School, an Orange County Public School. He has been at John Young for one year. Ian started teaching in South Central Los Angeles as a bilingual teacher. He taught special education in Osceola and Orange counties for 6 years. He has been an administrator for over 17 years. Ian's research interest is to determine what the school leaders do to lead and develop schools with successful programs for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He plans to work closely in education providing support for any program that provides support for students with disabilities. Ian is passionate about making a difference in the lives of those who are directly affected by socio-economic disadvantages. He attended the University of California at Santa Cruz and his passion for change led him to go back to his high school to educate students about going to college. When he graduated from Santa Cruz over 50 students from his high school were now attending UC Santa Cruz. His masters is in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University as well as over 30 credit hours in Exceptional Student Education. (-)

Dr. Julie Joseph

Julie Joseph, Psy.S. .: has been working within education almost 13 years, starting out as a special education teacher and then as a school psychologist. Currently Julie is working at Seminole County Public Schools as a school psychologist serving two schools, an elementary and a high schools, with a diverse student population. As a school psychologist, she works as an advocate for students to ensure appropriate services and supports to ensure positive outcomes for students with disabilities. Julie has conducted research to identify the leadership capacity and experiences of school psychologists in the schools they serve. Julie's future plans encompass ESE program leadership and training, advocating for students with disabilities, and meeting the personal, social, and educational needs of students with disabilities effectively. (-)

Dr. LaSonya Moore

LaSonya Moore: I am currently an Assistant Principal at Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater, Florida, where I supervise a variety of faculty and staff as well as approximately 1300 students. As an Assistant Principal, I aspire to establish a school culture and educational program conducive to individual student learning and personal growth. My greatest strengths include: Communication, teacher mentoring, curriculum design and improvement, school safety, standardized testing, program management and coordination, meetings and presentations. Furthermore, I am adept at fostering strong working relationships with all members of the local and school communities. I currently serve on the College of Education and Human Performance Teacher Education Advisory Board and the Educational Leadership Advisory Board at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. As an active member, I must remain focused on the needs of all students. In an effort to ensure that each will receive appropriate attention to meet their individual needs. (-)

Dr. Jonathan Rasmussen

Jonathan Rasmussen: is currently the Assistant Principal of Instruction at Wekiva High School in Apopka, Fl. This is his fourth year in this position. He is most interested in conducting research related to the effect of socioeconomics on students with disabilities and strategies to overcome both of these issues in order to help students become academically successful.

Jonathan plans to use the education he receives and contacts he makes, through NUSELI, to improve special education in Central Florida - with special focus on special education in schools within low socioeconomic areas.

He is grateful and blessed to have this opportunity and a family that is willing to support him through the process. (-)

Dr. Michelle San

Michelle San: I can recall the day I decided to become a teacher: it was the first day of my geometry class. The teacher stood on top of the desk and started drawing geometric objects on the walls and ceilings. She had all the students hanging on her every word. Her influence made such an impact it inspired me to become a teacher. After I graduated high school I went to Florida International University and earned a Bachelors Degree in Special Education. I have been employed by Dade County Public Schools for 12 years in many different capacities. I have taught students with various exceptionalities in the Inclusion setting, as well as, students with emotional and behavioral disorders. My first year teaching I was awarded CEC Rookie Teacher of the Year for my school. In addition to teaching, I have held leadership roles as department chair and program specialist of the Special Education Department. My desire for professional growth led me to pursue a Masters Degree in Educational Leadership and my National Boards Certification.

I aspire someday to make a greater impact of change on students, teachers, and the special education program, as a whole. The opportunities afforded by earning an Educational Doctorate, from NUSELI will make this attainable. (-)

Dr. June Sellers

June Sellers: is a Senior Administrator for Curriculum & Instruction, ESE PK-12 for the Orange County Public School System. A desire to improve the educational outcomes for children with disabilities lead her to pursue a Master's degree in Exceptional Student Education from the University of Central Florida through Project A.S.D., a program supporting specialized training, professional development, and Florida State endorsement for teaching students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Experience as a classroom teacher, curriculum leader and inclusion coach, lead to a desire for deeper involvement in the decisions that impact the educational experiences and outcomes children with disabilities, and to a Master's degree in Educational Leadership from Stetson University. June is a dedicated leader and tireless educator/advocate in the field of Urban Special Education and is honored to be a National Urban Special Education Leadership Initiative. Her professional goal is to improve the educational outcomes of students with disabilities and those from underserved and disadvantaged populations by relentlessly working toward continuous improvement and innovation in urban public school systems. (-)

Dr. Jeannette Tejeda

Jeannette R Tejeda: After pursuing a degree in Management of Organizations and entering the job market, I felt unfulfilled. Since I had worked with children during my studies, I decided to explore a career in education. I began teaching in the New York City Public Schools System through a program that enabled graduates of other fields to enter teaching. Within a few months I knew I had found my calling. I continued my education, obtaining a Master's degree in Elementary Education and Bilingual Education from Bank Street College of Education.

In my twenty-two years as an educator I have been fortunate to work in a variety of grade levels and setting, ranging from 
Pre-k through College, bilingual, dual language, inclusion programs, and curriculum support. In addition, I worked at a Juvenile Addiction Receiving Facility with a high percentage of students with special needs. This experience served as a catalyst for an important turning point in my career. As a result, I developed an interest in special education and co-teaching. Co-teaching proved both a challenge and a tremendous learning experience. I left the classroom after twenty years to become a curriculum support specialist, helping teachers provide all students with the tools and opportunities they need to succeed.

The opportunity to pursue a Doctoral degree with the help of NUSELI has been a tremendous honor and another wonderful turning point in my career. The cohort experience and challenging content have prepared me to continue the work of improving educational opportunities for students with disabilities. Earning this degree will allow me to impact change and aid in the organization and implementation of successful inclusion programs. (-)

Dr. Elizabeth Theis

Elizabeth Theis: Currently, I serve the students and families in OCPS as the Principal of Pine Castle Elementary School. I have dedicated my career to understanding and supporting students with diverse needs and hope to be able to inspire others to create an awareness and appreciation for creative and critical thinking.

I have been fortunate to learn from many mentors who have helped me to clarify my beliefs and have informed my decision making. I have developed an intense passion for developing and using systems and structures that benefit all stakeholders, including teachers, students, families, and community. I have experienced success by focusing on standards, instructional strategies, and progress monitoring through collaborative work. I plan to continue my professional learning to develop my leadership in order to sustain this focus so that all stakeholders experience success, confidence, and pride by seeking opportunities to develop, use and infuse my belief in a growth mindset. 

My dissertation focus is aligned with my professional interests and examines the lived experiences of elementary school principals and the practices and competencies associated with schools where students with learning disabilities demonstrate proficiency in reading. This year, at Pine Castle, I’ll be living those practices that were identified within my dissertation. Because Pine Castle serves a very diverse population of students, this challenge seems very authentic---and necessary!


Dr. Eric Wells

Dr. Eric Wells: currently serves the School District of Osceola County, Florida as a District Compliance/Program Specialist for the Exceptional Student Education Department. In that role, he acts as a member of the leadership team for the ESE Department, a support for the ESE Compliance Specialists in the district, and a resource for parents, families, and students with disabilities. Previously, he served as an ESE Compliance Specialist at the middle and high school levels, an ESE department chair, an ESE teacher, a regular education teacher, and a paraprofessional. Prior to this degree program, Eric had earned the following degrees: Ed.S. in Administration and Supervision (2008) from National-Louis University (2008), M.S.Ed. in Special Education from Niagara University (2005), M.S.Ed. in Secondary Education from Niagara University (2004), and B.A. in Political Science, with a concentration in Law and Jurisprudence and minors in History and Religious Studies, from Niagara University. His studies imposed in him a strong sense of the importance of being an advocate for those marginalized by society, a passion he currently pursues in his day to day work on behalf of students with disabilities. Academically, Eric is interested in effective leadership within special education, a topic around which his pending dissertation centers. Personally, Eric is a proud husband to Kate and father to Jacob (7) and Caitlin (5). (-)


Dr. Christopher Bernier

Information coming soon (-)

Dr. Deborah Bradley Brown

Dr. Deborah Bradley Brown: career as an educator spans almost 40 years. From 1977 - 2013, she served as a teacher, elementary school principal, Senior Director for Analytical Process Services and Executive Area Director for Orange County Public Schools. Prior to coming to Orange County, she began her career as an educator in 1974 for Portsmouth Public Schools in Portsmouth, VA. Dr. Brown was nominated by the Exceptional Education Program at the University of Central Florida and was appointed Graduate Faculty Scholar in the College of Graduate Studies. She has served as a mentor for NUSELI doctoral students for over 8 years. Having recently retired from Orange County Public Schools, Dr. Brown enjoys traveling with her husband and spending time with their three grandchildren. (-)

Dr. Lorrie Butler

Lorrie Butler .: I have been an educator for about twenty-four years. During this time, I have been an elementary school teacher, curriculum resource teacher, assistant principal and am now serving as the principal of an elementary school. I don't remember a certain point in my life when I had not thought of education as a possible career. I do know that the first time that I returned to an elementary school classroom as a requirement of an introduction to education class, I knew that I had made the right choice. Being there and working with the students made me feel as if I had returned home. (-)

Dr. Mark Cerasale

Mark Cerasale .: is currently the Educational Technology and Exceptional Student Education Facilitator at Jackson Heights Middle School, Oviedo, FL. He oversees all school technology, integrates technology into the curriculum, and conducts technology training. Dr. Cerasale provides support facilitation services to middle school students with disabilities. Prior to this position, Dr. Cerasale served as the Supervisor of Exceptional Education and Medicaid Services Administrator and Florida Diagnostic Learning and Resource Systems (FDLRS) Technology State Loan Library, Special Education Teacher, Sanford Middle School. Dr. Cerasale is a 24-year veteran of the United States Coast Guard and was a member of the first cohort of the National Urban Special Education Leadership Initiative. (-)

Dr. Anna Diaz

Anna Diaz .: Since June of 2004 year Anna D. Diaz has served as Associate Superintendent of Exceptional Education and Multilingual Services for Orange County Public Schools. She oversees programs for over 64,000 students. Prior to that she was the Executive Area Director for the West Learning Community for Orange County Public Schools. She was born Anna Angelica Delgado in Brooklyn, New York, on October 2, 1959. Her grandfather, from Yauco, Puerto Rico, came to this country as a tomato picker in New Jersey; he brought his wife and seven children to settle in New York. Anna was the first of her family to graduate from college. Since 2013, Dr. Diaz serves as one of five area superintendents in Orange County Public Schools. (-)

Dr. John Edwards

Information coming soon (-)

Dr. Amanda Ellis

Dr. Amanda Ellis: is currently principal of Endeavor Elementary in Orlando, Florida. As an educator, she has served as a teacher and administrator at both the school and district level. The most rewarding part of her job as Principal is the opportunity to develop the teacher practices of her faculty and to watch the impact it has on student learning. At the district level she served as Director of Professional Development Services and led a team that supported beginning teachers, coaching, professional learning communities, and lesson study. (-)

Dr. William (Bill) Heller

Dr. H. William (Bill) Heller: is currently Dean and Professor of the College Education and Director of the Bishop Center for Ethical Leadership and Civic Engagement at the University of South Florida St Petersburg (USFSP). Prior to these appointments, Dr. Heller served as CEO and Dean of the USFSP from 1992 - 2002 and as a member of the Florida House of Representatives from 2006 - 2010 representing House District 52. He holds a doctorate in Special Education and School Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. In addition to his extensive University experience, Dr. Heller also served at the Federal level as a Branch Chief and Division Director for the Division of Personnel Preparation for the Handicapped within the US Office of Education (now the U.S. Department of Education).

Dr. Heller currently serves as a Board Member for Family Resources, Suncoast Hospice Institute, St. Petersburg Preservation, the Advisory Board for Tampa Bay Watch, Chair the Pinellas Cultural Foundation, Inc. and is Treasurer of the St. Petersburg College's Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions. He is an Honorary Life Member of the Great Exploration's Board and is a Board member Emeritus of the Mahaffey Theater Foundation.

Dr. Heller is a veteran of the U. S. Army serving as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. He and Jeanne have been married for 60 years; have one son and two daughters and three grandchildren. (-)

Dr. Kimberly Steinke

Dr. Kimberly Steinke: In her 23rd year as an educator, Dr. Kimberly Steinke currently serves as the Senior Director of Exceptional Student Education Services for Orange County Public Schools. As the 10th largest school district in the nation and the 4th largest in the state of Florida, OCPS posts an enrollment of over 195,000 students in the Orlando urban area. While providing direct support to the Senior Executive Director for Exceptional Student Education (ESE/special education), Dr. Steinke shares in the leadership of districtwide ESE programs and services to nearly 24,000 students with disabilities and 11,000 gifted students in over 189 schools. A primary function of Dr. Steinke's leadership is filtering the provision of ESE services between the state, district and local school level requiring facilitation with parents of ESE students and with administrative colleagues at all levels. Additional areas of responsibility include oversight and monitoring of Orange County's Local Education Agency (LEA) Indicators/Profile as a required component of Florida's State Performance Plan, ESE Strategic Planning, ownership of the district's ESE State Reporting and FTE funding processes, and districtwide ESE master scheduling policies and procedures. Prior to her role as Senior Director, Dr. Steinke served as the OCPS Director of ESE Procedures where she had oversight of district-wide ESE compliance, Dispute Resolution, implementation of the statewide Portal to Exceptional Education Records (PEER) on-line IEP system, Matrix training, ESE services for charter school students with disabilities, the McKay scholarship program (Florida's school choice option for students with disabilities), Non-Public services, and ESE services for Parentally Placed Private School Students with disabilities. In the school-based setting Dr. Steinke was an Assistant Principal for Curriculum & Instruction at Conway Middle School and an ESE teacher, department chair, coach and administrative dean at West Orange High School. As an Orlando native Dr. Steinke is a three time University of Central Florida graduate after earning her bachelor's degree in Specific Learning Disabilities, her master's degree in Educational Leadership, and her education doctorate in Urban Special Education Leadership. Dr. Steinke is a member of the inaugural National Urban Special Education Leadership Initiative and currently serves as a member of the NUSELI Advisory Board and as a Graduate Faculty Scholar in UCF's College of Graduate Studies. Due to the critical role of administrators and their experience in the field of special education, Dr. Steinke focused her research in this area as detailed in her dissertation; Examining the Beliefs and Practices of Effective School Leaders as they Relate to Serving Students with Disabilities (2010). In her spare time, Dr. Steinke relishes time with her college age daughter, family and friends; is experiencing the joy and benefit of newfound physical fitness; and is relishing the adventures of increased travel experiences. Always loyal to UCF, she is also a lifelong Florida State Seminoles fan. (-)

Dr. Arlene Thomson

Dr. Arlene Thomson: is currently the Assistant Principal of Washington Shores Elementary, one of the elementary schools of Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) in Orlando, Florida. Her duties entail instructional leadership, supervision of teachers, managerial supervision of staff, monitoring and oversight of facilities and general administration shared with the principal. Previous jobs include Assistant Principal at Oak Ridge High School, Walker Middle School, and Southwood Elementary. She also served as Director for ESE Services at the district level for OCPS, ESE Program Specialist for the Central Learning Community of OCPS and School Social Worker for OCPS. Dr. Thomson has had a wonderful blend of job experiences in her working career. She has worked in business and industry and also in not-for-profit organizations. Her Masters in Social Work has given her the skills needed to serve diverse clients who were mainly economically and linguistically under-served. Having completed the doctorate, she has been afforded opportunities to make presentations at regional and national conferences, lecture at the tertiary level, mentor doctoral students, and to be a member of three doctoral committees where the doctoral students successfully defended their dissertations. She enjoys mentoring and motivating others to achieve their highest academic attainment and looks forward to continuing the terrific collaboration she has developed with the National Urban Special Education Leadership Initiative at the University of Central Florida. (-)

Dr. Karen Uhle

Dr. Karen Uhle: Although I always knew I wanted a career that helped children, quite honestly I grew up with the thought that I would be a pediatric nurse. My father was a pediatrician, and my mother a pediatric nurse, and they both thought my personality and temperament was better suited to being a doctor rather than a nurse. After some heartfelt struggles with this decision, I decided to help children by becoming a teacher. (-)

Dr. Thomas Uhle

Dr. Thomas Uhle: was born and raised in Miami Dade County, and has spent the last three years as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Miami Dade College. He earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Special Education from the University of Florida. Dr. Uhle continued his education by earning National Board Certification and a Doctorate from the University of Central Florida. He spent twelve years as a special education teacher in an urban middle school in Miami. During the 2011-2012 school year, Dr. Uhle was recognized as the South Region teacher of the year for Miami Dade County Public Schools. While a doctoral student, Dr. Uhle had opportunities to collaborate with peers from around the world at the Harvard Institute and the University of Central Winter Institute, as well as at conference presentations for the Council for Exceptional Children. Dr. Uhle spent several years engrossed in educational research under the guidance of Dr. Suzanne Martin and the National Urban Special Education Leadership Institute at the University of Central Florida. The focus of Dr. Uhle's research has been on leadership and administrative issues as they pertain to educational placements for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Dr. Uhle has continued his efforts to influence positive change for students with disabilities as a full-time faculty member at Miami Dade College, where he helps prepare the next generation of special educators who are earning their Bachelor's degrees. In his spare time, Dr. Uhle enjoys camping and spending time with his wife, Michelle, his 10 year old daughter, Grace (who wants to be a teacher) and his 6 year old son, Taylor (who wants to be a Jedi). (-)

Dr. Maria Vazquez

Dr. Maria Vazquez: was born and raised in Tampa Florida After receiving her Bachelor's degree from the University of South Florida she began her teaching career as a math instructor in Hillsborough County. Shortly after, she met her husband Ulysses Vazquez and moved to Longwood, Florida where they raised their three children, Elizabeth, Stephanie and Robert. She received both her Master's in Educational Leadership and Doctorate in Education from the University of Central Florida. Dr. Vazquez is committed to the needs of children for over 20 years and has served in various roles including: elementary teacher, Curriculum Resource Teacher for Reading and Language Arts, assistant principal, principal, Executive Area Director and Senior Director for Exceptional Student Education and Multilingual Services in Orange County Public Schools. She is currently the Area Superintendent for the Southeast Learning Community. (-)

Dr. Bridget Williams

Information coming soon (-)