Clarksville, TN – Undergraduate students are not usually the ones you expect to see attend an early morning doctoral dissertation defense — on a Friday no less.
However, this dedication comes naturally to the former students from a tight-knit rural community like McEwen, Tennessee, in Humphreys County, when they hear their old high school principal is the doctoral student.
On January 27th, Robert Lanham successfully defended his dissertation in front of three of his former students, members of his cohort, and Austin Peay State University (APSU) Eriksson College of Education faculty members. Lanham will officially receive his Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Education Leadership degree in May.
Lanham is the principal at McEwen High School, and he is known to give out his personal cell phone number to assist community members in resolving concerns or helping students. It is this personal approach that his former students said makes him such an asset to the school.
“I was born and raised there,” Lanham said of his connection to McEwen. “I’ve only ever lived in one place.”
Doctoral programs in education, like the one launched at APSU in 2018, are designed to assist teachers and administrators in becoming strong practitioners within a variety of educational settings. This knowledge will be helpful to Lanham’s future work in Humphreys County. According to Tennessee Department of Education data, 26 percent of the student population there is considered economically disadvantaged. Under his leadership, McEwen High School was named a Reward School for the 2021-22 academic year.
“As a school principal, data is a critical component,” Lanham said. “Just being a part of this (program) was helpful in my day-to-day operations. The ability to decipher data and understand, or the ability to ask questions to improve your practice, is important.”
A relational leader himself, Lanham said the people are what brought him back to APSU after graduating with an Ed.S. in 2018.
“When I got here in the Ed.S. program, I really fell in love with the people,” Lanham said. “That is why I wanted to come back here, versus another place. I felt comfortable.”
Lanham typifies many of the rural educators that support schools across Tennessee, and he is a good example of the type of student APSU was founded to serve as a teacher-training institution in 1927.
In his doctoral dissertation, “Students Playing Hooky from School: How School Accountability Measures and Locality Play a Part in Chronic Absenteeism,” Lanham explored the Every Student Succeeds Act, and whether holding schools accountable for truancy makes a difference in outcomes.
He examined various locales as part of his research, and he noted that rural schools see less truancy than larger city school districts across the state. Lanham credited the personal approach rural schools take in education for some of the trends noted in his research.
Dr. Cheryl Lambert, APSU associate professor and chair for the Department of Teaching and Learning, leads the Center for Rural Education. Through the Rural Education Scholars Program and other initiatives, one of her goals is to connect passionate, well-trained teachers to rural schools with hard-to-fill positions.
With Humphreys County being one of the rural districts served by the Center for Rural Education, Lambert is excited to see Lanham put his doctoral research and training into practice.
Rural schools often outperform other educational settings in measures such as graduation rates, Lambert said, which is why she is excited to continue to partner with Lanham and McEwen High School in the future.
“I worked with him in the summer to present workshops with his in-service teachers,” Lambert said. “He has worked very closely with us to determine the needs of his county. It’s an ongoing collaborative effort to share the expertise here at Austin Peay with our rural neighbors.”
Applications are being accepted now for the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program. For more information about APSU’s Eriksson College of Education or the doctoral program, visit www.apsu.edu/education.