Penn GSE graduates a third-generation leader for its renowned Penn Literacy Network

Friday, June 10, 2022
Three generations of women

Running the impactful Penn Literacy Network is truly a family affair. Lara Paparo, the program’s associate director, was recently awarded her doctorate of education from Penn GSE, making her the third generation in the family to achieve an Ed.D. here.

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Running the impactful Penn Literacy Network is truly a family affair. Lara Paparo, the program’s associate director, was recently awarded her doctorate of education from Penn GSE, making her the third generation in her family to achieve an Ed.D. here – and also work as a leader at PLN. In 1981, Paparo’s grandfather, Dr. Morton Botel (ED’45 GED’48 GR’53), founded what eventually became PLN; her mother, Dr. Bonnie Botel-Sheppard (CGS’74 GED’76 GRD’81), currently serves as the group’s executive director. Together, the three generations have impacted tens of thousands of teachers and students across K-12.

PLN, part of Penn GSE's innovation center, Catalyst @ Penn GSE, is an evidence-based professional development organization focused on teaching, learning and literacy for practitioners. Its reach is far and wide. In the 2021-22 school year, PLN served 37 school and district partners, 4,200 educators and 105,000 students.

Now that she has her Ed.D., Paparo plans to carry on her grandfather and mother’s commitment to literacy across the curriculum and training educators.

"I am excited to bring new ideas into our program to enhance our research base and bring diverse voices into our community," Paparo (GED’06 GRD’22) said. “I want to extend our work into new areas, and I’m always thinking about how we can offer support to more teachers.”

Paparo first joined PLN in 2006 while working as a high school social studies teacher, although she has been walking (or running) the halls of Penn GSE since she was a young child. Paparo recalls regularly traveling between her grandfather’s third-floor office and her mother’s first-floor office. She always felt at home here, she said.

Penn GSE is full of Botel family memories. When Paparo earned her master’s in education from Penn GSE in 2006, her grandfather presented her with her degree at commencement. Paparo attended the last class her grandfather ever taught and then attended her first class as a doctoral student in the same room. In May 2022, Paparo defended her dissertation in the same room where her mother defended her dissertation.

“I think that Penn GSE has always been somewhere I'm very comfortable and very familiar, and I have many memories,” said Paparo, who was named PLN’s associate director in 2016. 

Dr. Botel, who passed away in 2015, was also a Penn GSE professor while leading PLN (then known as Language in Education). Paparo and Botel-Sheppard are carrying on his legacy and growing the organization beyond its initial goal to support Philadelphia-area schools. PLN has expanded into multiple states and countries, including China, Israel and Ireland. Teachers can take in-person, online and hybrid courses to further their literacy capabilities and better support their students.

“We went from one continuing education credit course to well over 70 focused on the growing needs of school districts and other partners,” said Botel-Sheppard.

PLN's mission has been more critical than ever in the last two years. The pandemic dramatically affected students, teachers and schools, and the organization has mobilized to support them with training and resources. 

To help, PLN created free resources for schools, including webinars and training sessions to assist educators in supporting learners in the U.S. and abroad. They gathered teachers from the U.S. and China for collaborative Zoom learning sessions. PLN saw increased interest in several programs, including the Social-Emotional Learning and Trauma Certificate Program and Making Friends with Books, a community-based, multigenerational literacy program.

The pandemic's impact on education inspired Paparo's dissertation. In it, she examined the experiences and self-efficacy of secondary teachers in hybrid teaching models that emerged during the pandemic. PLN is using it to inform some of its hybrid coursework.

“Currently, one of the challenges we are facing is the residual effects of the pandemic on children and their development academically and socially, as well as the impact that it is having on teachers and burnout,” Paparo said. “Literacy is a huge part of that solution, and we are working to support teachers in how they are differentiating and applying new lenses to create innovative solutions that leverage their strengths through reflective practices.”

Botel-Sheppard said she's committed to continuing PLN's national expansion, engaging more Penn GSE and Penn faculty and securing more funding for community outreach programs.

“I hope to continue to support the mission of our work, guiding PLN faculty, instructors, and coaches, and supporting school partners and our wonderful full-time staff,” said Botel-Sheppard.

Could there be a fourth-generation Penn GSE EdD in the family’s future? Paparo said it is possible. Her 12-year-old daughter aspires to be a middle school math teacher and wants to attend Penn, while her 9-year-old son has visions of a career in sports broadcasting and could find a home at Penn too. And while Paparo would love to see her kids on campus, she’s open to other career ideas.

Said Paparo: “Both of my kids understand, just as I did, that they have so many options and we will support them in whatever they choose to do.”

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