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Strengthening Leadership in Rural Schools

How Teach For America’s Rural School Leadership Academy prepares aspiring school leaders.

By The TFA Editorial Team

February 4, 2020

Teach For America Teachers in Rural Schools

In rural regions across the country, there is a strong demand for committed, effective school leaders. Teach For America’s Rural School Leadership Academy (RSLA) offers aspiring rural school leaders a pathway into school leadership, whether you are just starting to explore school leadership roles, or preparing to move into a school principal role. The program is open to TFA alumni and other dedicated rural educators who are not previously affiliated with TFA. 

While there are hundreds of great school leadership programs out there, the RSLA fellowship is one of the few that focuses entirely on the unique context of leading a school in a rural setting. This yearlong, all-expenses-paid fellowship offers a unique opportunity to build a network of peers who are working in similar contexts, while exploring your strengths, and building skills to become an effective leader.

We spoke with a few past fellows to learn about their fellowship experience, how they are applying what they learned to their current roles, and the impact they are making in their schools.

Why Join the Rural School Leadership Academy? 

Ryan Mandado (Hawai’i ‘15) is the founding chief academic officer at Dreamhouse Ewa Beach, a public charter school in Hawai’i that opened its doors to its first cohort of sixth-graders in the fall of 2019. Living in a small island community presents challenges around equitable access to school funding, resources, and opportunities. Students often leave the community after graduation to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Ryan joined the RSLA fellowship after completing the corps in 2017 because he wanted to see how other schools were developing innovative programs to invest students in their local community.

“I want kids to understand the value of having a high school diploma, to have a path to a career in their community and to see their place as leaders in their community,” Ryan says.

Jeffrey Sagor (New Mexico ‘10) also joined the 2017 RSLA cohort right after he became the principal of Newcomb High School in New Mexico. His school is situated in a small rural community located within the Navajo Nation. It’s a close-knit community with strong ties to Navajo culture and tradition, but opportunities for graduating students are also limited here, too. Jeffrey saw the RSLA fellowship as a rare opportunity to engage in professional development that is focused specifically on the unique needs in rural schools. 

“I’m a big believer in you can't be what you haven't seen. So seeing how other school leaders operate within their systems, the challenges they're facing and how they're overcoming them is incredibly powerful,” he says.

Alonna Berry (Jacksonville ‘11) was drawn to the program for similar reasons. Her family’s history in rural Sussex County, Delaware, goes back several generations. Alonna is deeply invested in her community and says her time in the RSLA fellowship helped her answer the question, “How can I make a lasting impact on future generations in my hometown?” 

Building Capacity for Leadership in Rural Schools

During the yearlong fellowship, fellows have the opportunity to visit other rural schools across the country. Fellows deepen their understanding of the rural education context while engaging in professional development that builds their capacity to lead in their home schools.

Ryan recalls visiting a school in Eastern North Carolina that had a progressive project-based model that helped students imagine the role they could play in the community. Seeing this example happened at the perfect time as Ryan was shaping the vision for what learning would look like at his school. 

“It was interesting to see how the school was providing opportunities for students to engage in real-world problem solving by giving students space to identify issues in their community and come up with solutions they could implement,” Ryan says.

The cohort also attended professional development sessions facilitated by school leaders on different facets of school leadership, such as instructional coaching. Jeffrey was motivated by learning how leaders at Uncommon Schools structured their feedback sessions with teachers, making the sessions efficient and actionable for both teachers and school leaders. 

“At the time, I had no idea how to structure that,” Jeffrey says. I'm now finally at a place where every two weeks, every single one of my teachers is getting an initial observation, a face-to-face meeting with an action step, and a followup.”

For Alonna, the school visits deepened her belief in the strength of rural communities and the unique role that schools play within a rural context. She was moved by seeing how one school partnered with local farmers to provide food and resources for kids in food deserts. And how another school built a healthcare center within the school building and partnered with local organizations to provide social services for students and families.  

“I think the most inspiring part was that the rural schools that were innovating and being successful all had the central theme of making themselves the hub of the community,” Alonna says. “We took that theory and thought about what it would look like here in our home community of rural Delaware.”

© Photo Jeana Marinelli Rural School Leadership Academy fellows discuss what it means to build authentic relationships with their school staff.

Making an Impact Back Home

Since completing the fellowship, Alonna and her fellow RSLA cohort member, Chantalle Ashford (Delaware ‘14), have put their ideas into action and plan to launch a new school in Delaware that will bring together elements from the rural schools they visited, with a social justice focus. They plan to open The Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence in the fall of 2022, named after the renowned civil rights attorney and author of Just Mercy, which was recently made into a film. Bryan is also a Delaware native and one of Alonna’s close relatives. Their vision is to create a service-learning high school that partners closely with community organizations to offer students a pathway to a career in their community.

Jeffrey was also inspired by how the schools he visited are tackling issues around economic mobility and giving students exposure to career skills they can use in the community. His school has implemented an academic minors program where students can get hands-on career experience in culinary arts, environmental sustainability, and technology. The school recently hired a computer science teacher who is leading programs to help prepare students for good-paying remote jobs.   

“The choice doesn't have to be, do I have a high paying job out in an urban area or do I stay home and not have those opportunities?” Jeffrey says. “The choice can now be, I can have a high paying job and stay with my community.”

Ryan’s school is in its first year of operation and he’s starting to see how the ideas he brought back from the fellowship are playing out. Every afternoon all students engage in a leadership development class where they explore their identity and strengths and learn how to advocate for themselves and their community.

Ryan says by far one of the most enduring benefits of being an RSLA fellow is the connections he’s made with fellow rural school leaders in his cohort. 

“We created a close bond during our time in the fellowship,” Ryan says. “I feel like it can just reach out to someone if I need advice on facilitating a critical conversation or recommendations for resources on pedagogy. We all need each other in this work.”