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Longtime Teacher, Lifelong Learner: Oregon Educator Becomes Concordia’s First EdD Graduate

By Room 241 Team July 9, 2016

When James MacAdam Brookins successfully defended his doctoral dissertation, “Interventions Addressing Chronic Absenteeism,” he made Concordia history. This spring, the superintendent/principal of the Triangle Lake Charter School, a K-12 school in Blachly, Oregon, Brookins became the first recipient of Concordia University’s Doctorate of Education degree.

The family business

Brookins grew up in North Bend, Oregon. Though he graduated from Oregon State University in 1981 with a B.S. in Biology, he returned to OSU in 1986, changed his major to education, and earned his initial teaching certification in biology, chemistry, and advanced mathematics in 1990. Given that he comes from a family of educators, his change of career trajectory wasn’t entirely surprising. Brookins decided to become a teacher in his thirties because he wanted to make a difference in math and science education. He liked the path taken by his father – a professor and president of SW Oregon Community College – but before taking on a position as an administrator, Brookins wanted at least 10 years of experience in the classroom.

Brookins got that experience ­­– and then some – in the Vernonia School District, where for 20 years he taught all levels of mathematics and science. In addition, for a total of 40 seasons, he was the head coach of the cross country, golf, and wrestling teams. He was an advisor for the student government, the international club, and the National Honor Society as well as a mentor for the FIRST Robotics program. For several years Brookins also served as Vernonia’s special education director, was the testing coordinator, and assisted the superintendent and principals with building management and administration.

Then in 2013, the Blachly District #90 School Board hired Brookins as both the superintendent and principal of the Triangle Lake Charter School, a small school with only 248 students. “I never anticipated leaving Vernonia, but it was a unique opportunity and a good fit for me,” Brookins says. “They’ve had six superintendents in nine years. These supers come to a small school to get experience and tend to move on to bigger schools with higher salaries. But I’m a small-school guy. I like seeing every kid and every staff member every day. A big school has more teachers than I have students.”

Degrees of difference

While teaching in Vernonia, Brookins came to Concordia to get advanced math and science certificates, not an advanced degree. He in fact used his math certificate to start a calculus program in Vernonia. Later, after becoming more familiar with the roles of upper administration, he decided he wanted to be in a position to move up and began to think about getting his masters.

In 2003, he learned about Concordia’s education masters programs at a county-wide in-service event, as the Concordia IAL (Initial Administrator License) program had just been accredited. Brookins joined the first online cohort in 2004, doing one-third of his coursework on campus and two-thirds online – mostly during the summer term so he could meet other people.

He was so happy with the program that he ended up recruiting at least a half-dozen students for the IAL program. “Online education meant I met students teaching around the world: Beijing, Cairo, Saudi Arabia, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, California, New York, Alabama, and so on,” Brookins says. “It was very beneficial to get perspectives from all over.”

Although Brookins attended other undergrad schools, he considers Concordia University-Portland his alma mater. “I received a ton of personal attention at CU. The experience was collaborative and focused on my success. The quality of the academic work is high.”

He was particularly pleased with Concordia’s size and spirit of community. “’I’ve said that the best thing about Concordia is that the financial aid director knows my name. The small-school touch is very important and that’s why I never really left.” In fact, Brookins may have influenced the development of the very program for which he just received a degree. “I mentioned to the director, repeatedly, that Concordia needed to start a doctorate program.”

A dissertation with a mission

With the percentage of Oregon students demonstrating chronic absenteeism hovering at 17.5, Brookins’s dissertation delved into a truly timely and useful subject. It examined the factors that contribute to chronic absenteeism, studied the effects of chronic absenteeism, and tested interventions. These interventions included informal conversations with both students and their families, weekly rewards, and small group support sessions. In his test group, Brookins’s interventions brought about an impressive 80% improvement in attendance. He later presented these findings to the House and Senate education chairs in Salem.

That’s Dr. Brookins

For Brookins, the road to a doctorate degree was paved with a lot of late nights. He worked toward his EdD as a full-time student while staying on as the full-time superintendent at Blachly. Luckily, his staff and school board were very supportive and encouraging.

So why was he so determined to get his doctorate? “Because I always expected to get one,” he explains. Dr. Brookins also wanted to set a good example about the importance of lifelong learning for the students in Blachly. There’s another reason as well — to keep up with his son and daughter (two of his five children). His daughter beat him, receiving her PhD from Washington University in St. Louis first. “But I got mine before my son received his from MIT,” he says with a chuckle.

And besides the honor of being able to add “Doctor” to one’s name, “it’s pretty cool being the first person to receive a doctorate at Concordia,” Brookins admits. “It’s a legacy, and it also leads the way for other people to get theirs.”

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