National Urban Special Education Leadership Initiative

An education Doctoral Program for Urban Leadership in Special Education


Participants - Cohort 1

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Sara Bigalke

Sara Bigalke received her Bachelor's degree in Communication Studies and Political Science from Northwestern University, Master's of Teaching from Dominican University, and Educational Specialist degree from Nova Southeastern. Ms. Bigalke was a Teach For America corps member in Chicago before returning to her hometown of Orlando. Ms. Bigalke has served in education for eleven years with six of those in a leadership position. Currently, she is the principal at Lake Silver Elementary, an Exceptional Student Education cluster school. While in the NUSELI program, she hopes to deepen her knowledge of special education and grow in her leadership capabilities as she focuses her research on the achievement gap. After graduating from UCF with an Education Doctorate (Ed.D.), she hopes to continue her pursuit of educational equality for all students. (-)

Frederick Brooks

Fredrick Brooks earned his Bachelor's degree in Physical Education from Florida Memorial University, Master's degree from Florida International University, and his Educational Specialist degree in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Mr. Brooks taught for 9 years and has served in leadership for 11 years. Currently, he is Principal of Pine Hills Elementary School in Orange County Public Schools. Mr. Brooks received recognition in his district as a National Board Certified Teacher, 2006 Teacher of the Year, and 2015-2016 Orange County Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services School Administrator of the Year. While in the NUSELI program, he hopes to learn more about best practices in inclusive education. During his studies within the education doctorate program, he has gained the knowledge and skills to continue to support the growth and development of students with disabilities. After graduating from UCF with an Education Doctorate (Ed.D.), he aims to continue advocating for inclusive education for students with disabilities as a district level administrator. Mr. Brooks encourages others to get involved in NUSELI because it is a family of collaborative educators that supports each other in their professional growth. (-)

Zerek Mayes

Zerek Mayes earned his Bachelor's degree in Psychology and Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Central Florida. Mr. Mayes has been in the teaching profession for five years and has served in a leadership capacity for over seven years. Currently, Zerek works as a Social Worker at Gateway School for Orange County Public Schools. For the past five years, he has connected Exceptional Student Education (ESE) students and families with educational and community resources both in the classroom and the community. As a Social Worker, he presented at the national level at the School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA) Conference. Additionally, he supervises Master's of Social Work (MSW) interns within the school setting. Through the NUSELI program, he is deepening his knowledge and broadening his capacity to be a voice for students, families, and communities negatively impacted by the ever-evolving educational landscape locally, nationally, and internationally. Furthermore, he seeks to address issues that contribute to widening the achievement gaps as it relates to students in the urban context. This program has provided him with a wealth of knowledge, skills, and strategies that have allowed him to influence and effect change immediately in his areas of service. After graduating from UCF with an Education Doctorate (Ed.D.), he plans to broaden his influence in the sphere of education and the service that he provides to others. He encourages others to get involved in NUSELI because the opportunities and the experiences are once in a lifetime. The world belongs to those of NUSELI! (-)

Erin Vacchio

Erin Vacchio currently serves as the Assistant Principal of Instruction at East River High School in Orlando, Florida. Previously, Ms. Vacchio has worked as an administrative dean and biology teacher. Coming from a large family, she watched her younger siblings struggle to be successful in school until they received the proper supports. From that experience, Ms. Vacchio hopes to develop researched based methods to support students with disabilities master rigorous standards while becoming independent thinkers and learners. Currently, she is conducting research on leadership preparation for school-based administrators who support special education departments. (-)

Tracy Webley

Tracy Webley received her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education from the University of Central Florida and Master's Degree from Stetson University. She has been in education for over 15 years, with 8 years as an administrator. Currently, Tracy works as a Principal at Windy Ridge K-8 School in Orange County Florida. Tracy's has focused the majority of her career working in inner-city schools with 100% under-served and high-needs students, many who struggled in poverty. Currently, Tracy works at a school with a large cluster of students with intellectual disabilities and medically fragile students. While in the NUSELI Program, she is interested in investigating best practices for increasing achievement and opportunities for students with disabilities. After graduating, Tracy hopes to acquire the knowledge and skills to be able to impact change in inclusion programs, and to mentor teachers of high-needs students. Tracy encourages others to become involved in the NUSELI Program to become advocates for students with disabilities and because education is a life-long endeavor. (-)

Participants - Cohort 2

Tricia Bridges

Tricia Bridges earned both her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Exceptional Student Education at the University of Central Florida. Ms. Bridges has worked with students in special education in Seminole County since 2010. Ms. Bridges served as the Exceptional Student Education Department Chair at South Seminole Middle School for two years. While at South Seminole, Ms. Bridges also served as Lead Teacher for the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an enrichment program designed to benefit students at Title 1 schools. Ms. Bridges is especially interested in social development and social justice for all students, including students with disabilities. She is an enthusiastic, life-long learner who is passionate about special education. She believes that the NUSELI doctoral program is a monumental movement to create positive change in schools and communities. She is grateful for the opportunity to be part of such an exciting program. Tricia currently works at Lawton Chiles Middle School as the Academic Interventionist. Upon graduating with her educational doctorate (Ed.D.) through NUSELI, Tricia aspires to continue her career in special education at the district level. (-)

Ann Hembrook

Ann Hembrook is a proud principal in Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) the 10th largest district in the nation. She currently serves approximately 1,000 middle school students in grade 6-8. Ms. Hembrook has worked in elementary and secondary schools as well as the district offices. She has been a teacher, curriculum coach, assistant principal, principal, senior administrator, and director. Ms. Hembrook is learning a great deal about urban education and special education through courses and experiences as part of the NUSELI program. This new knowledge is helping her see how she can make a difference in the lives of all students at the school level. The NUSELI program has made a significant difference in her professional life and how she leads her middle school. Ms. Hembrook is grateful for the opportunity as it is making her a better principal, educator, leader, and advocate for all students. (-)

Stephanie Jackson

Stephanie Jackson began her career as a science teacher at a historically black high school, Jones High School, located in Orlando, FL. During her time at Jones High School, Mrs. Jackson sought to foster not only a sense of science content with the students but also a sense of well-being and life skills that would prove to be successful in their post-secondary careers. Following her first instructional position, she accepted her first senior administrative position as a Science Instructional Specialist with the Florida Department of Education. In this position, she served as a turn-around agent for struggling schools in various school districts throughout the state of Florida. Currently she works as a principal for Orange County Public Schools and is pursuing her doctorate in education with the NUSELI program. (-)

Bernadette Jaster

Bernadette Jaster earned her Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Colorado and her Master's degree from Georgian Court University. Ms. Jaster has worked in education for over 30. She began her career in education as a teacher in Barnegat Township Schools in Barnegat, NJ. She then worked as consultant and curriculum trainer with the Success for All Foundation and school administrator for 11 years. Currently, Ms. Jaster works as a Principal at Pershing-Pine Castle Elementary School in Orange County Florida. Through her roles as a teacher, consultant, and administrator, she has focused her career working in high-need, urban schools. Ms. Jaster recently merged two local schools which now is a center school for students with intellectual disabilities. In this next stage of her career as doctoral scholar in the NUSELI program, she hopes to focus her studies on the achievement gap facing students in today's public school system. After graduating, she hopes to help educators effectively meet the needs of all students and help bridge the gap in student achievement. (-)

Elaine Martinez

Elaine Martinez has served as an elementary school principal for the last 13 years. Prior to becoming a school principal, Ms. Martinez served as Area Administrator, Assistant Principal, Dean of Students, District Resource Teacher for Bilingual/ESOL students, Teacher, Paraprofessional, Extended Day Coordinator, and Extended Day Group Leader. Ms. Martinez earned a Master's degree in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University and her Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education from the University of Central Florida, and has her state endorsement in ESOL. Her 27 years in the field of education have afforded her the opportunity to work with students from diverse cultural, linguistic, socio-economic, and academic backgrounds in general education and special education settings. (-)

DeSheila Rumph-Wallace

DeSheila Rumph-Wallace is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Legends Academy in Orlando, Florida. Mrs. Wallace received her Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Central Florida and her Master's in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. She began her career as a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Shores Elementary School. With only one year of teaching experience, she was quickly identified as a teacher with potential leadership abilities. Mrs. Wallace was selected to serve many leadership roles to include team lead, data analysis team, (K-2) Response to Intervention Coordinator (RtI), and (K-5) math coach. As a member of the leadership team, Mrs. Wallace developed the initial framework for Response to Intervention (RtI) at her school and coached teachers on math strategies to improve student achievement. After six years of service at Washington Shores Elementary School, Mrs. Wallace transferred to Pine Hill Elementary School where she served as a math and science coach. In her tenure, she developed the framework for science and math intervention as well as coached novice teachers on mathematical strategies, classroom management, and how to develop math intervention groups. Mrs. Wallace then transitioned to the TIF grant where she served as a District STEM coach. In her capacity as a District STEM coach, Mrs. Wallace sharpened her collaboration skills by working with district and school administration to develop unique STEM rollout plans, district assessments, STEM curriculum, and professional development focused on increasing teachers mathematical and science instructional practices. (-)

Maureen I. Scanlan

Maureen I. Scanlan earned her Bachelor's degree in Secondary Education from the University of Central Florida and her Master's degree in Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Ms. Scanlan taught high school English for thirteen years, two of which were in Bangor, Pennsylvania and eleven in Winter Park, Florida. Ms. Scanlan began her career in school leader at Winter Park High School serving as an Administrative Dean for one year and an Assistant Principal for five years. As the Senior Administrator of Academics, Ms. Scanlan currently supports the 20 traditional high schools in Orange County Public School (OCPS) system. She believes that all students should receive rigorous and relevant learning opportunities, which can be accomplished by implementing the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). As a NUSELI doctoral scholar, she is excited to strengthen her leadership skills to best support all students in OCPS. (-)

Carrie Woods

Carrie Woods earned her Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education and Special Education at the State University of New York at Geneseo and her Master's degree in Deaf Education from Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. Ms. Woods has taught students who are deaf and hard of hearing at the secondary level for 17 years. Additionally, she is an adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida, Seminole State College, and Bethune-Cookman University teaching courses related to deaf studies. While in the NUSELI program, Ms. Woods hopes to grow in her leadership capacity to influence future generations of teachers working with students with exceptional needs, particularly those with hearing loss. Upon completion of the Education Doctorate (Ed.D.) through the NUSELI program she hopes to impact change in the preparation of teachers and administrators who work with students with exceptional needs. (-)


Leigh Austin

Leigh Austin earned a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education from Stetson University and her Master's degree in Instructional Technology and an Educational Doctorate from the University of Central Florida. Dr. Austin previously served as a multimedia producer at Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich as well as a producer for the Mickey Mouse Club and Disney Interactive Animated Storybooks for Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame. Dr. Austin entered education as a Media Technology Specialist for Volusia County Schools (VCS) before joining Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) as a Multimedia Development Administrator. Shortly after joining OCPS, she was promoted to Senior Administrator for Curriculum and Instruction in the East Learning Community where she provided supports to 30 schools. She then moved into the Accountability, Research, and Assessment department as a Senior Administrator where she served for seven years before being promoted to her current position as the Director for ESE Specialized Services. In this position, she is a leader of three departments including the Curriculum and Instructional Support for Students with Disabilities and Students who are Gifted, the Preschool Diagnostic and Intervention Services, and the ESE Transition Department where she supports 20 high schools within the High School High Tech program and Community Based Vocational Education. Dr. Austin also serves as the principal for the ESE Transition School serving students with disabilities between the ages 18-22 years who learn job skills at 15 businesses throughout Orange County. (-)

Dr. Gabriel Berrio

Gabriel Berrio: I was raised in Chicago and started tutoring students in Reading, Math, and Science each summer during high school until I graduated and went to college.  Helping students in this way inspired me to become a teacher and I enjoyed teaching several years in Chicago and in Orlando, Florida.  As I took on more responsibilities and additional duties outside of the classroom, I became interested in pursuing an educational administration career.  As it turned out, I loved the experience as an administrator and my first year as an Assistant Principal in 2003 was truly a learning and rewarding experience. I learned about NUSELI and was accepted into the program while still an Assistant Principal.  My experience as an Assistant Principal along with my participation in NUSELI as I sought my doctorate degree helped me greatly prepare for my first Principalship at Westridge Middle School.   During my four years at Westridge, was invited to apply for AVID Demonstration School status along and also earned demonstration school status for Imagine Learning.  I completed my doctorate degree at UCF through the NUSELI program in December of 2010. I completed four years as Principal at Timber Creek High School which earned an A grade all of those years. I was invited to join and participated in the Florida Department of Education Commissioner's Leadership Academy. This summer, I became an Executive Area Director for the High School Division for Orange County Public Schools and am excited about the new opportunity. (-)

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. 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. (-)

Anna Diaz

Anna D. Diaz serves the community of Central Florida as the Area Superintendent for Orange County Public Schools. Dr. Diaz, a NUSELI graduate herself, is a tireless advocate for children, and believes that they deserve the dignity of high expectations, great schools, and highly-qualified teachers. Dr. Diaz is a transformational leader and was the first Hispanic middle school and high school principal in Orange County Public Schools. Her commitment to community service is demonstrated through her past board memberships and affiliations. She has been recognized as a proponent of social and fiscal responsibility and accountability by various community leaders. (-)

Patricia Fritzler

Dr. Patricia Fritzler received her Bachelor's in Education from the University of South Florida, and her Master's and Doctorate in Education from Nova Southeastern University. As the Area Superintendent for the Southeast Learning Community for Orange County Public schools, she works passionately to lead schools toward the district's vision of being the top producer of successful students in the nation. Over the past 29 years with Orange County Public Schools, Dr. Fritzler has developed a proven track record of effective instructional leadership. From 1999-2014, as a principal, she successfully led Durrance Elementary and West Creek Elementary to an “A� rating from the Florida Department of Education. For the proceeding six years, she served as an Executive Area Director, supporting school leaders in increasing student achievement through improving systems and structures for effective instruction and progress monitoring. In her current position, she continues working toward supporting schools in their growth, and looks forward to many more years of continued development and increasing student success. (-)

Diane Gullett

Diane Gullett is an Area Superintendent with Orange County Public Schools. Prior to her current role, she served as an Executive Area Director in the School Transformation Office and for the Professional Development Services Department. Dr. Gullett served as Past President of the Florida Association of Instructional Supervisors and Administrators (FAISA) and served on the Board for the Florida Association of School Administrators (FASA). Dr. Gullett currently serves as a member of the Advisory Board for the University of Florida Lastinger Center for Learning. In 2015, she was appointed by the Florida Commissioner of Education to chair the steering committee for Florida PD Redesign that provided policy recommendations on local and state protocols and standards to guide professional learning. Dr. Gullett also served as a district member of the Florida team participating in the ITE Global Community of Practice that studies education reform to strengthen the connection from teacher preparation to practice. Previously, she served as a school principal for nine years, where she passionately led diverse populations of students including a Title I bilingual center school. In her first principalship, her school was recognized as one of the top 100 high-performing schools in the state of Florida.

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. (-)

Jennifer Porter Smith

Jennifer Porter-Smith is the Executive Director of Nap Ford Community School, Inc., a public charter school network focused on the education of Pre-K through 8th grade students in Orlando's Urban Corridor. She began her career as a research professor specializing in the neurosciences. Dr. Porter-Smith earned a Doctorate degree in Physiological Psychology from the University of Florida and completed postdoctoral work studying developmental neuroanatomy and neuropharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh. She made the transition into education as an Administrator with Orange County Public Schools. She has earned distinctions in her work on closing the academic achievement gap and promoting family involvement.


Dr. Kimberly Steinke

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. (-)

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!


Todd Trimble

Todd Trimble is serving in his 28th year in public education and is currently the Executive Area Director for the Southeast Learning Community for Orange County Public Schools. His current responsibilities consist of working with the Area Superintendent to coordinate and make available expertise and support services to help schools achieve desired priorities in response to needs and disparities identified at the school and classroom level for 26 elementary schools and 8 middle schools. Dr. Trimble has previously served as an elementary school physical education teacher, middle school science teacher, middle school Dean, middle school Assistant Principal, high school Assistant Principal, and a middle school Principal. He has extensive experience in Title I schools. Dr. Trimble believes that the key to student learning is a school principal who relentlessly supports the development of teachers. He holds a Doctorate of Education in Educational Leadership from the University of Central Florida. His research interests include school principal preparation, professional learning communities, and school leadership development. He authored an article titled: Collaborative common planning to meet higher standards: One school's system for meeting the challenge (2015).


Dr. Michelle Walsh

Dr. Walsh earned her Bachelors of Science degree in Social Science Education at the University of Central Florida in 1991, Master’s degree in Educational Leadership at Nova Southeastern University in 1997 and Doctorate of Philosophy in Educational Leadership at the University of Florida in 2002. She has been an educator in Seminole County for 25 years starting her career as a social studies teacher, tennis coach and Student Government sponsor at Lyman High School.

In 1997, Dr. Walsh transitioned from the classroom into administration and was promoted to Assistant Principal at Lyman High School; responsible for Exceptional Student Education, a passion of hers since she was in college. Dr. Walsh was appointed principal of Rock Lake Middle School in 2003 and in the spring of 2008, was appointed principal of Milwee Middle School, tapped to develop the Pre-Engineering Magnet. In December of 2014, Dr. Walsh was appointed to the position of Director of Exceptional Student Support Services and in June 2015, appointed Executive Director of Exceptional Student Support Services. She enjoys working with elementary, middle and high school students, parents, teachers and administrators to collaboratively serve students with disabilities, ages 3-22.


Paul Wilhite

Paul Wilhite earned his Bachelor's degree in History from the University of Florida, his Master's degree in Business Administration from Florida State University, and his Doctoral degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Central Florida. I spent over 20 years in the private sector as a sales trainer and general manager in the communications industry before following an original goal of becoming an educator. Over 14 years ago, Dr. Wilhite started teaching at Winter Park High School in the Orange County Public School district. He then served as an Administrative Dean at Winter Park for two years. Dr. Wilhite was then promoted to the Assistant Principal position at Maitland Middle School where he was responsible for curriculum and instruction for over 950 students and 60 instructors. He now serves as a Senior Administrator at Winter Park High School and a part time instructor for St. Thomas University.