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SEMO celebrates 150 years of education programs

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Southeast Missouri State University started out as a “normal school” or teacher’s college 150 years ago. Its education programs celebrated 150 years with an open house and reception April 20 in the Mark F. Scully Building.

The college also celebrated its third designation as an Apple Distinguished School and the 50th anniversary of the Scully Building, home of the education programs.

University President Car-los Vargas welcomed the crowd. He said Southeast began in 1873 with 57 students. “Now, 150 years later, we apparently have about 500 students pursing a degree in education,” he said.

Vargas spoke about the process of learning and the importance of teachers. He said a recent MIT study found that students learn better from reading books than they do from using technology such as a computer tablet.

“Reading a book, and particularly, reading with an adult (or having an adult read to them) allows them to develop deeper thinking and really makes more profound changes in their brain,” he said.

Technology is useful, but should not be relied upon solely to teach children to read. Vargas recommended a hybrid approach that includes reading books and using technology.

Vargas shared a slogan from a Pennsyvania initiative that said, “Before 3, children learn to read; after 3, children read to learn.”

“I thought that was a very interesting concept. That’s why it’s so important to get the children to learn well as soon as possible,” Vargas said.

To the students who were present, Vargas offered this advice. “I do talk to students about the importance of asking questions. It is a very powerful tool for learning.”

Vargas also told students not to take classes with the objective of getting an A only. “It’s not the best approach,” he said. “Grades are not the best predictor of job performance. Students who get straight ‘A’s, statistically speaking, do not do as well on the job as students who do not get all straight ‘A’s.” Vargas cautioned students to focus on the meaning of the course instead of focusing entirely upon getting straight As.

“Teachers are the unsung heroes,” Vargas said. “We all can think back to a teacher—at least one—who made a real impact in our lives.”

Joe Pujol, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Studies, gave a brief history of normal schools and introduced a number of Southeast alumni, faculty and staff present.

“As education changed, educator preparation at Southeast has evolved,” Pujol said. He mentioned the Apple Distinguished School designation. The Edvolution Center (a technology center that combines the words “education” and “revolution”) had an Apple Computer one-to-one initiative that led to its first designation three years ago.

The Edvolution Center expanded its scope over the years to support technology throughout the university. In 2019, area schools were surveyed and school districts told SEMO that it needed more than just Apple devices. Students needed experience with more types of devices. Now, students graduate with Google teacher and apple teacher credentials, Pujol said.

The Scully Building was named for Mark Scully, who was an educator. He attended Southeast Missouri State Normal School while he was an active classroom teacher in Mississippi County. He served as university president from 1956 to 1975. (He was the first university president to earn a bachelor’s degree from Southeast.)

When the Scully Building opened 50 years ago, it housed the university’s school of education and psychology. Today, many departments find their home there, Pujol said.

Brady O’Neill, a junior at SEMO and president of the Student Missouri Teachers Association, spoke about coming to SEMO. He toured the University before coming here. Because it was the first campus he toured, he compared every other university he toured to SEMO, and SEMO won out. “I really fell in love with it,” he said. The Scully Building knocked his socks off, he said. “This place is awesome. Not one place had anything half like this.”

Sam Duncan, superintendent of the New Madrid School District (and a former Jackson R-2 educator) was the keynote speaker. He and his parents are all Southeast alumni.

Duncan spoke about Southeast’s impact on the region. He said nearly all of his teachers in school were educated at Southeast. “I’ve had a stellar education from them,” he said. “This university is the real deal.”

In addition to academics, Duncan met his wife, Melanie, while they were students at Southeast. She funneled his many majors down to education. “I would not be in education today if it were not for Melanie,” he said.

Many of Southeast’s graduates stay in the region to teach.

Duncan says he likes to give Southeast graduates the “first shot” at teacher openings in his school district.

“When I interview a Southeast graduate, they know the components of a good lesson. They know what their reading block should look like. They know what their math block should look like. And they understand things a lot of people who are getting an education right now don’t understand.”

Duncan said he has requisitioned more iPads for kindergartners in his school district. Yet, he understands that students in this area learn to read without technology, as Vargas had said earlier. “We know that direct, engaging instruction focusing on phonics-based literacy is the only way that our children in the Missouri Bootheel are going to learn how to read. There are some that may learn other ways, but our children in the Missouri Bootheel, definitely need that.”

He added, “This college has turned out teachers that can do, and I certainly appreciate that.”

Gregory Dullum has worked for The Cash-Book Journal for more than 25 years. Prior to becoming the editor in May 2017, he was production manager, circulation manager and reporter. Before moving to Cape Girardeau in 1988, he was editor of the Saint Louis Park Sailor, a weekly community newspaper in suburban Minneapolis, MN. A native of Minnesota, he returned there after graduating with distinction in 1978 from Ambassador College in Pasadena, CA, with a degree in mass communications. His wife, Marie, whom he met in college, is a native of Zalma, a small town in southeast Missouri. They have two grown daughters and five grandchildren. Gregory may be reached at

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