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Recognized for Early Career Impact

Special needs students won her over to teaching, inspired her doctoral studies and now Assistant Professor Vonzell Agosto has won an award from an American Educational Research Association Special Interest Group.

Assistant Professor Vonzell Agosto is helping to revive the Florida chapter of the National Association of Multicultural Education.      Photo by: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (May 11, 2015) – The teaching profession found Vonzell Agosto through the students who responded to her ability to listen to them, which in turn won her over.

Finding too many doors essentially closed to her as a female sound engineer, she accepted a job as a teacher’s aide out of necessity. The next thing the communications major knew she was pursuing a master’s degree and then her doctorate in education. Now she is contributing to the profession through her research into curriculum, leadership preparation and anti-oppressive education. And she’s being recognized for it.

An assistant professor in the Department of Leadership, Counseling, Adult, Career and Higher Education in USF’s College of Education, Agosto received the Early Scholar Award in April from the Critical Issues in Curriculum and Cultural Studies Special Interest Group (SIG) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) which is “given to one early career scholar who best demonstrates a consistent commitment to the critical study of curriculum and cultural studies scholarship…”

She never would have imagined 25 years ago that working at a suburban day school for students diagnosed as severely disabled would captivate her. And yet the children worked their way into her heart.

“I left the position to complete student teaching elsewhere and cried when I told my principal I was leaving,” she said.

Later she went on to work as a special education teacher and consultant in an inclusive secondary education program. While earning her Ph.D. in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she worked as a graduate teaching assistant for a multicultural learning community seminar. Studying with leading scholars in the field such as Carl Grant and Gloria Ladson Billings made a big impression on her.

“They modeled great mentoring and staying grounded in the values and communities that remind you of the best self toward which you aspire,” she said.

As teaching completely took over her imagination and career plans, she didn’t stop at the classroom. Agosto helped out after school with extra-curricular activities – the Multicultural Club, focused on social Justice and art, and curriculum leadership.

“I needed something else to feed my soul,” she said. Agosto was drawn to theatre and social justice utilizing “theatre of the oppressed” to deal with racism through “action dialogues.”

It soon became clear that focusing on curriculum and leadership offered her the best routes to making significant positive change in students’ lives and ultimately made her the perfect candidate for her current position.

“The program was seeking a scholar of curriculum studies, which describes how I understand my research and research community,” she explained.

A Search for Equity and Excellence

Agosto had shifted her original research agenda from preparing teachers to one that focused on “building the capability of teachers to teach in a way that is equitable and excellent,” she explained. “I gravitated to culturally relevant education that built on my interest in the arts as well as popular culture, material culture and ethnic culture in everyday life. There are ways to tap into aesthetics, making subjects intriguing to students.”

Agosto discovered over time that she achieved greater success with her students when she found ways to bring in movies or music and utilize the ICE self-assessment model – ideas, connections, extensions. She brings her research and experience to the college classroom in enhancing the work of experienced educators for curriculum leadership.

I’m trying to model the value of connecting students to knowledge by finding out what they are interested in so that they can achieve deep learning and understanding and ultimately wisdom,” she said. “So much of today’s curriculum materials are pre-packaged, but today’s teachers need to find spaces to integrate knowledge beyond preparation for high stakes testing and not see it as having to do extra work.”

She points out that, “Wealthier students have access to schools not guided by such testing and they are often taught with the expectation that they will become leaders.”

Centering her approach around equity and justice, Agosto emphasizes the need for teachers to learn how to communicate with students of all backgrounds.

“Our ways of speaking are shaped by our cultural backgrounds. There are ways of adapting to the cultures of the students in order to reach them to develop their leadership skills and address the multiple assets available to them.

““When we identify and look more closely at disability tropes and master-narratives of race and gender, when we illuminate uses of language and terminology, we can start to address the factors that present obstacles to classroom learning and find ways to improve our success with and truly empower all students. My courses examine theory, acknowledge foundations, and prompt keen analysis while seeking ways to foster curriculum research and improvement.”

A national research society founded in 1916, AERA comprises 25,000 faculty, researchers, graduate students, and other distinguished professionals with expertise in education research. They come from universities, other academic institutions, research institutes, federal and state agencies, school systems, testing companies, and nonprofit organizations. Agosto values her membership and has served on committees devoted to arts, leadership and social justice.

“I’ve been so impressed with the people who won this award in previous years that I’m truly honored and proud,” she said. “That I’m going to be part of that list of awardees is really awesome.”

Published in a number of scholarly journals, Agosto has also presented her work at major conferences. She currently serves as co-editor of the “Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership,” and is on the editorial review board of the "Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy."

She is adding another project to her list. She is helping to revive the Florida Chapter of the National Association of Multicultural Education and will serve as its incoming vice president.

For more about Agosto’s work, click here or visit her website at

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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