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Teach For America Looks to Strengthen, Grow Rural School Leaders Academy

Teach For America plans to continue and strengthen the Rural School Leaders Academy that it launched last summer.
 
The academy was created is in an effort to help teachers transition into roles as principals in rural areas, and 20 members in 11 rural regions are part of that first group. Participants include current Teach For America corps members, as well as TFA alumni teachers and assistant principals.
 
Applications for the second round of RSLA closed at the end of January, and officials are expecting to select about 20 more participants.
 
The program aims to create a culture of collaboration, as well as to combat the isolation rural educators sometimes feel, through a week-long summer training, monthly phone calls, regular retreat weekends, and virtual trainings. Only 17 percent of rural school districts have school leadership training programs, compared to 51.6 percent of city districts, according to a National Center for Education Statistics report.

TFA recruits ambitious college graduates of all majors, gives them an abbreviated period of training, and places them in high-need schools for two years. An estimated 1,350 corps members work in rural schools. TFA has been criticized for its short training period for new teachers and for requiring only a two-year teaching commitment from those recruits. But TFA officials have argued that its alumni often take other leadership roles in education, both in administration and in public policy and advocacy. This new program seems part of that vision.

We reached out to Hilary Lewis, Teach For America's Vice President of School Leadership, as well as Tina Brennan, a participant in the inaugural Rural School Leaders Academy class and a Teach For America alumna, to get their thoughts on the program. Here's what they had to say. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
 
Q and A With Lewis
EdWeek: You're a little more than halfway through your first year. How do you think the inaugural year of the program has gone?
Lewis: As we look to strengthen and hone RSLA in year two, we're really feeling good about the experience of our charter cohort. We've learned that they've found the trainings both informative and engaging, and they've found tremendous value in being a part of this network of rural educators. We were particularly pleased to see that so many of the applicants for next year's cohort were referred by current participants.
 
EdWeek: Is there anything you're looking to change for 2014-15?
Lewis: The 2014-15 curriculum will continue to offer participants an introduction to a wide range of rural leadership competencies, with a stronger focus on three key elements: data-driven instruction; giving and receiving feedback; and values-based leadership. This is informed by our view that these three areas are essential for all great educators - whether they ultimately pursue school leadership or opt to continue on in the classroom and develop as teacher leaders. 
 
EdWeek: Will the first cohort continue in the academy during 2014-15, or is it a one-year program?
Lewis: The formal program ends after year one. However, we plan to continue to host virtual consultancies, problem-solving sessions, and online forums. Given the strength of the relationships we've seen formed in this first year, we anticipate that this network will continue to develop and engage together.
 
Q and A With BrennanBrennan mugshot.jpg
EdWeek: Where are you working, and what are you doing?
Brennan: I teach intermediate English literacy in a Spanish/English dual language school in Walla Walla, Wash. I am part of the Title I staff in our building helping with data analysis, small group instruction and teacher growth.
 
EdWeek: Why did you want to be a part of the RSLA?
Brennan: Professional development opportunities for any profession are severely limited by geography. Teaching is no different. RSLA offered me the chance to receive high-quality professional development and connect with a cohort of peers around the country who I would never otherwise have a chance to connect with. RSLA has introduced me to a peer network that I can call on to enrich my school's environment. RSLA provided me with 22 instant supporters and there is no resource better than an experienced mentor.
 
EdWeek: What has been the best part of the RSLA?
Brennan: It's been said that you're only as good as the company you keep and for me, being a part of RSLA has raised my own level of leadership simply by being around other strong, successful leaders. Exploring the challenges of school leadership in a group of people with mixed roles and experiences has challenged my perspective on solutions and widened the scope of my resources. I knew the skill development would be helpful, but I had no idea how crucial the cohort aspect would be. The best part has been the relationships I've developed through the experiences we have shared.
 
EdWeek: Would you change anything about the RSLA?
Brennan: Personally, the one downside to RSLA was that I was not able to include my own school leader in the process with me. She is passionate about developing her leadership so I was able to share with her about our excellent school visits, webinars and PD sessions, but parts of it would have been powerful to experience together. While the intent of RSLA is to grow rising school leaders, there were pieces experienced leaders would also benefit from. I was impressed by the quality and breadth of the programming by RSLA and only wish I could have shared it with my district's leadership.
 
EdWeek: Anything else I haven't asked that you'd like to say?
Brennan: I am thrilled that my path led me back to teaching in the rural Pacific Northwest. Washington is an exciting place to be right now with new legislation around teacher evaluation and charter schools generating rich conversations about what is best for students. There are leaders all over the rural Pacific Northwest who are hungry for professional development tailored to rural districts. I hope that RSLA becomes a regular part of the conversation for one model of providing opportunities for geographically isolated school leaders.

Photo: Tina Brennan (provided)

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