Professor and Chair of Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies
Professor Jerri Willett, Ph.D., has earned an international reputation for her groundbreaking work in the fields of language and literacy. For more than two decades, she has been a compelling advocate for the professional development of teachers of second language learners.
Working closely with colleagues in her department, Professor Willett established the Access through Critical Content and English Language Acquisition (ACCELA) Alliance, a state and federally funded collaboration that supports and improves the education of second language learners across the Commonwealth by providing effective professional development for their teachers.
The ACCELA Alliance includes UMass Amherst and the Springfield, Holyoke, and Amherst school districts as well as several community organizations throughout western Massachusetts. These areas have large populations of English language learners, and Professor Willett and her colleagues saw the challenges that teachers and administrators faced in handling students who were learning both English and regular content at the same time. The ACCELA Alliance has answered these challenges by providing resources for teachers such as degree programs (a Bachelor's of General Studies and a Master's of Education) and the Teacher Quality Dialogues Project, a collaboration between UMass Amherst and the Springfield school district. The latter opens up a discussion between teachers and administrators in order to develop shared expertise about the instructional needs of English language learners.
The ACCELA Alliance also gives teachers the opportunity to collaborate with doctoral students and professors, examining questions about teaching and learning in these particular classroom environments. These questions, in turn, open up new areas of research, with a total of 18 doctoral students writing dissertations about the experience and bringing what they've learned to universities across the country.
"Now we can see the importance of not just hiding these students away until they learned English," Professor Willett says. "The work has energized everybody. The faculty have been going out into the districts and seeing at the ground level what they need to be doing. It has given them different ways of looking at teaching."
In the last seven years of ACCELA's operation, 65 teachers have earned graduate degrees while participating in the program. In total, almost 5,000 teachers and students have been positively affected by this program.
Professor Willett spends countless hours in the schools, working with teachers in Holyoke and Springfield and mentoring students in the doctoral concentration. Her consistent presence in the lives of these public school teachers along with her dedication to improving the education of second language learners have been instrumental to the ACCELA Alliance's success. Professor Willet and her colleagues in the language and literacy concentration at UMass Amherst are currently working to expand the ACCELA program across the Commonwealth.
Professor Willett is chair of the Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies at UMass Amherst. She earned her Ph.D. at Stanford University.