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Grant Awarded to Expand Training for Rural School Leaders

A North Carolina effort to develop leaders in hard-to-staff rural schools will expand with the help of a $4.7 million federal grant.

The Northeast Leadership Academy is a project to train more school leaders in 14 northeast North Carolina school districts. The academy's participants complete a year-long internship and earn a master's degree in school administration and a North Carolina principal's license, and they commit to working in one of the 14 districts for three years. The districts hire the academy's graduates for principal and assistant principal jobs in high-need schools.

The academy initially was funded with money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction. The program became the pilot leadership-preparation program for the state's federal Race to the Top application, and the academy was one of three statewide to receive money to train and support future principals.

The Race to the Top funding from the U.S. Department of Education helped cover the cost of the program's first three cohorts, the last of which started in January and will graduate in May 2014. The new five-year grant will support two additional cohorts of 15 aspiring principals each in the two-year program, as well as five annual intensive summer academies for current principals, Bonnie Fusarelli, an associate professor of educational leadership at North Carolina State University and director of the Northeast Leadership Academy, told EdWeek.

The academy aims to prepare its graduates as both school and community leaders, so students' summer experiences include internships with community agencies. They spend some of that time writing grants to connect those groups with schools. The Rural School and Community Trust as well as a 4H professor have worked with the academy to develop that school-community connection, Fusarelli said.

The latest grant from the U.S. Department of Education's School Leadership Program will cover the academy's cost for training leaders in 13 districts.

Educator recruitment and retention is a problem faced by rural districts nationally, particularly those that are geographically isolated with high-poverty and low-performing schools. This kind of grow-your-own effort to address rural educator shortages can be found elsewhere in North Carolina. A scholarship program at East Carolina University helps aspiring teachers in rural districts obtain the education they need to teach in their home communities.

Fusarelli pointed out that North Carolina ranks second in the country for both its number and percentage (47.2) of rural students. Most of the state's schools serve rural communities, and the poorest and lowest achieving are disproportionately clustered in the northeast region, she said.

"Given that over 50 percent of North Carolina principals will be eligible for retirement over the next four years, we have a unique policy window to implement sustainable improvements in preparation that will translate into real improvements in schools," she said. "Our graduates are highly sought after and have a first year, post-degree leadership placement rate in rural northeast North Carolina of 90 percent."

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