With a vision to empower faculty, staff and students to prioritize equitable outcomes for learners, families and communities, Erica McCray is poised to lead the School of Special Education, School Psychology and Early Childhood Studies (SESPECS) into a new era.
In October 2019, McCray assumed the role of director of SESPECS following three years as associate director. She has been a faculty member at the University of Florida College of Education since 2007 and became a tenured associate professor in 2013. McCray succeeds Holly Lane, who became director in 2016 and has resumed her teaching and research responsibilities as an associate professor of Special Education and director of the University of Florida Literacy Institute.
“Erica really is the ideal person to lead SESPECS,” Lane said. “I think it’s wonderful that she’s taking on this role as we move into 2020 because she has such a clear vision for moving us forward. She has a terrific perspective on the needs of the field and on the role our faculty and students can play in meeting those needs.”
Driven by persisting questions regarding the influence access to education and equity in education have on a person’s lifelong potential for success, McCray has dedicated her career to seeking solutions in and beyond the classroom.
“That notion of equity and what opportunities and access to certain instruction or resources or experiences — what that can do in terms of trajectory — has always mattered to me,” she said.
Throughout her personal K-12 academic experiences, McCray noticed she was often the only Black student in her honors and AP courses.
“I always wondered — ‘What about me makes it OK for me to be here?’” she said.
McCray recognized the experiences of her peers were inevitably going to be vastly different from her own, as they were not receiving the same kind of instruction nor opportunities as she was. While she had a mother who was wholeheartedly committed to advocating for her future, she realized this, too, was not always the experience of others.
“Not every parent has the time or the know-how or the background or fortitude to pursue and persist on behalf of their children,” she said.
As a special educator, supporting students with behavioral and learning disabilities in elementary and middle school settings, McCray was guided by these revelations.
“How can we say that we’re doing anything in service of our children and their families if that’s not always our goal,” she said.
Taking an uncompromising responsibility for student learning, McCray sought to provide her students the support they needed to be successful, while also equipping their families with the knowledge to challenge and overcome persisting barriers.
“If I’m in a space and there are others that I feel like should be in this space, it’s up to me to say something and do something,” she said… “If I’m unwilling, then I don’t deserve the role or responsibility.”
As she continued serving in the classroom, McCray gained opportunities to work with fellow teachers and felt energized by the experience and the potential to make a greater impact on education.
“As much as I could impact the students that were in my classroom when they were there, they were going into other spaces and they were not being as successful,” she said, “and so how could I help them and their teachers be successful throughout their day, throughout their academic time?”
McCray’s journey inevitably led her to higher education, where she realized she could expand her reach and influence the lives of countless students through their future educators and leaders.
“I’m always thinking about the kids,” she said. “Even though I spend very little time in K-12 classrooms now, I’m always thinking about what impact I have on the people that I work with and how does that influence what’s happening for kids in K-12 settings.”
By educating cadres of teachers and leaders, McCray can equip them to address inequities in their classrooms and schools making a difference not only in students’ lives, but also the lives of their families and communities.
“In public education in general, there are structural barriers that as a whole we seem unwilling to address,” she said. “We talk around them, we tinker around the edges, we talk about accountability, but we don’t hold systems and the people who operate systems accountable in ways that I think we should.”
McCray’s passion and vision have remained guiding forces in her work at the College of Education and SESPECS.
During her tenure, McCray has been involved with several critical grant-funded projects to advance teacher education, foster inclusive learning and teaching, promote teacher and leader professional development, and influence national policy. Currently, she serves as the co-principal investigator for two major initiatives: the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability and Reform (CEEDAR) Center and a National Science Foundation-funded project titled The (In)authentic Experiences of Black Engineers. For these and other endeavors she has been recognized by the university for her record of accomplishment receiving the prestigious UF Research Foundation Professorship in 2017.
“I try to just be persistent in nudging folks around me and asking questions and pushing the envelope,” she said, “conducting research that allows the voices of those that are impacted to be amplified.”
Looking to the future, McCray hopes to lead SESPECS into a new era putting equity, diversity and innovation at the heart of the department. With a longstanding record of achievement already, she hopes to focus efforts on becoming more intentional with their work and capitalizing further on synergy.
“We have great strength in prevention and intervention with our Early Childhood faculty, with our School Psychology faculty and the Special Education faculty,” she said, “but how do we do that in ways that show we’re about equity, that we are thinking about students who are made vulnerable by the contexts that they’re in, and how do we right those situations so that they can have good lives on their terms?”
Vital to McCray’s vision is working with seasoned faculty to lay and fortify the foundation of the department and with early and mid-career faculty to serve as the architects of the future of the department.
“It takes all of us to get this work done,” she said.
McCray hopes a part of her legacy will be defined by recasting SESPECS’ infrastructure to innovate and contributing to its reputation and recognition as a place that values everyone equitably.
“I feel like I’ve been given this opportunity, and I can’t take it for granted,” she said.