Islander Outstanding Graduate Balances Work, Family, Classes to Earn Educational Leadership Doctorate

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – In the summer of 2018, Islander alumna Rhianna Flores was in the middle of filling out her financial aid paperwork for Lamar University’s online Leadership Doctoral Degree Program. After a conversation with her boss, Ekrem Demirci, School of Science and Technology (SST) Principal, she decided to apply for the Educational Leadership program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi instead.

“Mr. Demirci told me, ‘The professors are local and if you have questions, you can always go see them in person,” Flores said. “I had to take a leap of faith, because Lamar’s program started before TAMU-CC’s and I had already been accepted there, but after a few conversations with faculty at the Island University, I made my decision to apply here.”

Dimerci’s sound advice has paid dividends. Just two years later, Flores is graduating from the Island University’s EdD program in Educational Leadership with a 4.0 GPA. Flores was selected by the Office of the Provost as an Outstanding Graduate for the Fall 2020 semester. She will participate in the Fall Island University Commencement Ceremony on Dec. 12.

A Wisconsin native, Flores grew up in Oshkosh and completed a bachelor’s degree as a double major in Early Childhood Educational Studies and Business Administration in spring 2008 from Ripon College in Wisconsin. A momentous weeklong visit with a friend in Texas convinced Flores to move to the Lone Star State to start her career and pursue higher education goals.  

Once in Corpus Christi, Flores served as a long-term fourth-grade substitute teacher at Kostoryz Elementary School during spring 2009 before accepting the English Department Chair position at the SST, a charter school located on the city’s South side. Flores blossomed at the SST and would go on to serve in numerous roles over more than 10 years including first-grade teacher, ESL coordinator/fifth-grade teacher, and assistant principal. Currently, she is the District Curriculum Coordinator at London ISD.

Looking to advance in her career, Flores enrolled at the Island University to begin work on a Master of Science in Educational Administration in summer 2010. The program prepares graduates to meet the challenges of school leadership positions, such as campus principal, campus assistant principal and central office administration. Flores completed the 36-hour program in a little over a year with a cumulative GPA of 3.9. 

“I took classes with Dr. James Walter and Dr. Raul Prezas and they were my favorites - I can still hear the stories about when they were administrators in my head,” Flores said.  “I learned a great deal from all of my professors and was able to immediately apply what I had learned in class to my job setting.”

A married mother of two young sons, Flores said the decision to pursue a doctoral degree required a great deal of cooperation and support from her loved ones.

“My sons were 3 and 4 when I started the program and my husband, James, does shift work at Oxy Chem alternating from days and nights and I was a full-time employee in the K-12 educational setting,” she said. “I never missed a class, so being able to do that while juggling everything took a lot of pre-planning.”

Flores said she turned to family members Terri McEnulty, Business Coordinator in Athletic Programs, who provided child-care at night and on Saturdays and Becky Flores to help on weekends when Flores had large projects to complete.

“It took a village to make sure my kids were taken care of while I was working on my doctorate,” Flores said.

Prior to applying for the Educational Leadership program, Flores completed Superintendent Certification classes with a 4.0 GPA through Lamar University’s online program in summer 2016. As a result, Flores was able to transfer 12 credit hours toward her Educational Leadership doctoral degree plan, which allowed her to complete the program in an expedited fashion, according to her mentor and dissertation chair, Dr. Kamiar Kouzekanani, Professor of Quantitative Methods in the College of Education and Human Development.

“Rhianna is a self-motivated student – she’s very driven and from the beginning, she knew what she wanted to do,” Kouzekanani said, noting her additional roles as a mother, wife, and full-time employee. “She’s very focused and got through the program incredibly quickly; because she transferred in 12 credit hours, she completed her doctorate in just two and half years with a 4.0 GPA.”

Dr. Rosa Banda, Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, wrote in her nomination letter for the Outstanding Graduate Award that Rhianna demonstrated extraordinary knowledge, skills and dispositions as a graduate student in the program.

“What is particularly refreshing about Rhianna is that she is truly invested in how to utilize knowledge learned in the classroom. She has an innate ability to successfully engage in dialogue with fellow scholars in the classroom … she truly embodies in practice what we learn in class when it comes to leadership,” Banda wrote in her letter.

On Oct. 5, Flores successfully defended her doctoral dissertation, “The Validity of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness in Predicting Middle School’s Rating.” Her committee members were Dr. Dessynie Edwards, Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, who co-chaired the committee; Dr. D. Scott Elliff, adjunct professor, Superintendent Preparation Program Coordinator, and retired Superintendent of the Corpus Christi ISD; and Dr. Stephen Doolan, Associate Professor of English.

“My dissertation is on the A – F Accountability System adopted by Texas in 2017,” Flores said. “The A – F Accountability System is the most widely used educational accountability system in the United States. However, it has not been adequately examined, particularly in Texas, where the results are used to make critical decisions for all public schools.”

The purpose of Flores’ study was to focus on 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students in 1,158 middle schools to examine the predictive validity of academic achievement, as measured by the percentage of students who met the criteria for approaches or meets on the 2018 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR), in predicting the overall school rating, which was confirmed by a series of Discriminant Analysis. 

Flores said Kouzekanani provided structured timelines, which allowed the workload to be manageable.

“Dr. Kouzekanani made himself available to me, which he didn’t have to,” she said. “I spent much of this past summer completing my research with his help.”

She is also grateful to her mother Carla Cicero, who provided financial support for her undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

With her key educational goals behind her, Flores said she plans to make the most of her time with her sons – J.R. and Everett - and her husband.

“My sons played baseball before I started my doctorate and JR has been asking to play baseball so it’s time for them,” she said. “With all the ups and downs right now, I’m just looking to learn more in the field and if the opportunity arises, it arises. But one thing is certain – I’m never happy in a stagnant situation so one way or another, my career and knowledge are going to evolve.”