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Welcome to the EPFP Alumni Blog! Here we highlight the work of EPFP alumni around the country by featuring guest blog posts about our three pillars: Policy, Leadership, and Networking. For more information or to report abuse of this feature, please contact the EPFP national program staff at epfp@iel.org.

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Cross Boundary Leader: Christopher Shearer (DC EPFP 94-95)

Posted By Sarah McCann, Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Cross Boundary Leader

Christopher A. Shearer

DC EPFP 94-95

 

Christopher Shearer is a Program Officer in the Education Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. He helps manage grants to improve education by advancing deeper learning—an interrelated set of academic content knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, and learning dispositions for students.

Previously, he was associate executive director of the National Geographic Society’s Education Foundation, where for more than a decade he managed grant making, policy advocacy, and public engagement. From 1993 to 1997, he was a senior staffer at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s interdisciplinary National Health & Education Consortium. Before that, he served as the executive assistant to the president of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Chris began his career as a communications associate for the Duke University-based Pew Health Professions Commission, established to help U.S. workforce, policy, and educational institutions respond to the nation’s changing health care needs and emerging models.skills, and learning dispositions for students.Hewlett Foundation. He helps manage grants to improve education by advancing deeper learning—an interrelated set of academic content knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, and learning dispositions for students.

Chris holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature and biology, and a master’s degree in English literature, both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his hometown.

Deeper Learning & Education Policy

Education is one of four standing program focus areas at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We’re making sure kids get the knowledge and skills in school they’ll need to succeed when they graduate. This includes six competencies that, together, we call “deeper learning,” including critical-thinking, communicating and working collaboratively, in addition to rigorous academic mastery, directing one’s own learning, and developing learning mindsets.

As a program officer, my daily work is to engage with the nonprofit community to identify opportunities for funding—I think about issues like the alignment between our agenda and our grantees’ and about how Hewlett can add value to our partners beyond just the funding we provide. So, I often I work to connect people to each other, to funders, and to big ideas to make sure people have the range of resources needed to do the work they are proposing.

We at Hewlett think that if schools are going to support teachers to deliver deeper learning outcomes they need policy backing. Policy can endorse, enforce, and encourage innovation, but I think the field too often thinks of it only as an ‘enforcer,’ which can lead us into a compliance mindset. Hewlett wants to get policy to play a broader, more ‘signaling’ role to get people into a mindset of continuous improvement. So, while I work to introduce a broader set of deeper learning student outcomes through policy reform, I also strive to make policy itself a better, more useful tool. It’s not just used for identification, but for improvement; not just data, but useful data. Policy has a significant role to play in shaping the conditions and levers of the education system.

Hewlett makes grants from the national level down the cascade to the local. Our grantees are working on federal legislative reform to ensure that deeper learning is part of the explicit goals of education at the national level. We’re looking for innovative policies in assessment, teaching, and materials, as well as working across the suite of federal education legislation, trying to increase their congruence. Today, as states develop their consolidated ESSA plans they have a real opportunity to signal that these things matter and to create greater partnerships between states and districts. There’s been a real growth recently in rhetorical consensus on the importance of deeper learning, or the ‘soft skills,’ ‘essential skills,’ ‘21st century skills,’—whatever various advocates call them—and delivering on this new ‘North Star’ for students involves policy reform.

Our home state, California, is such an exciting place right now. The Golden State has recently tackled a whole suite of education policy reform, changing education goals, assessments, financing, governance, and accountability, all of which could potentially align much more with deeper learning. So, we are excited to work on this national agenda in our own backyard. And, across our work, we are increasingly trying to invest in up-and-coming leaders, people in the middle of their career now who will become leaders soon. We’re advocating for identification and support of folks to learn within their own career path, encouraging networking them with one another and creating a vanguard of leaders on diversity and equity in deeper learning. I am convinced investing in people will help the state achieve a tipping point for better student outcomes. That’s why we invested in California EPFP, and, as a former fellow in the DC program, I’m doubly glad to be able to help with it. California is a bellwether state in many ways, so we wanted to make sure it has the support it needs to help future leaders develop and maintain progress in education policy.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

I am a great believer in interdisciplinary perspectives and partnerships. Personally, I have moved from jobs working on workforce reform in healthcare to interdisciplinary grant-making, to connecting health care associations with education associations, to educator PD, to policy reform. I have been fortunate to tap into the rich and varied experiences that my bosses and institutions have provided me over the course of my career. For example, at IEL we brought together leading professional associations to get experts to see education as a health issue and, in turn, health as an education issue. I am super-committed to the idea that many of our nation’s market failures are partly a result of the phenomenon that one discipline alone cannot solve its own problems, cannot effectively see the whole student or citizen from just its own vantage point. So it really helps to bring together other sectors.

I regularly reference Bud Hodgkinson’s report ‘All One System’ and his philosophy that the child or community should be at the center of what we are doing. We have many layers of governance and services but they’re all accessed by the same citizen. In cross-sector work it helps to think about the learner first, not how to design the system for the adults working in it but for the students learning in it. How can we couple thinking through the various important outcomes in people’s lives without fragmenting their experiences; how can we think of them as a single client that everyone’s working for together? To approach policy development from this point of view, to think about a whole child and their whole needs, we need to consider cross-boundary leadership across all the different sectors.

In my experience, one challenge in leading across boundaries is ‘street cred.’ You need to prove you understand other sectors’ guardrails and North Stars. To some extent, you want to embrace being a generalist and get enough information and allies to be at least marginally credible within the sectors you are trying to unite.

You sometimes also have to overcome entrenched ways of thinking. If folks don’t understand how they could work together in new ways, old patterns can be pretty important barriers. Fortunately, foundations have catalytic money to think about getting around those barriers—such as funding the research necessary to clarify questions or document impact, or supporting a new staffer with cross-sector experience to foster new  discussions. And, even more importantly, we are blessed with enormous convening capacity to bring people to the table to listen, learn, and start to act. I have found that people really trust foundations to bring them to a conversation that is potentially interesting to them.

Leadership Lessons Learned

My number one leadership lesson is that you can make a difference and effect institutional and sectoral change even if you are not in the top position. No matter where you are, lead! Engage the emerging leaders who are coming up behind you and engage the established leaders above you so that you can lead from the middle. And then, if you do eventually get that top spot, you will remember how much work gets done in the middle. There’s often a difference, especially in the policy sphere, between the formal authority of the elected or appointed head and actual, transformational leadership. It’s important to work with the tools that you have and act in the position you’re in now.

My second lesson is that leaders react to big ideas. They of course have a track record of being competent on disciplinary issues and successful in project management, and have duly worked their way up to become masters of that sector domain, but often they really distinguish themselves and get to where they are by being able to recognize a powerful idea. Ideas give them great rhetorical and institutional room to act and provide a calling card to work across silos both inside their organizations and outside. So, another lesson is that you, yourself, are probably working on something really urgent and important to you that connects to a big idea. Don’t just approach leaders on the terms of policy minutiae or the near-term change metrics—surface that big idea and wield it, because leaders will respond.

EPFP Experience and Value

I was the first IEL staff member to go through EPFP. Mike Usdan and Betty Hale, who led IEL into the position of being such a strong capacity-development institution, made a decision during my tenure to also invest in the leadership development of our own staff. This is more unusual than you might think. So often, organizations do not internally do well what they successfully do externally for a living. How many teaching institutions are good at learning, for example? So, I really benefitted from IEL living its mission both inside and outside.

Through the EPFP experience I learned the power of networking. The Internet is an amazing tool, but it’s not as good as your phone. The importance of knowing people who know what, where, and when something is happening is a huge EPFP lesson that has improved my entire career. Having a networking lens allows you to get good information from people in the know and enables you to tap into the wisdom of the group to make everything better, from design to execution. EPFP also helped me cement an understanding of the vital federal role—and of federal/state relations—in policy. I’ve never been an elected official, or worked for one, but looking from the outside at policy, I believe in its power for good and that was reinforced by the technical, contextual, and networking experience provided to me by EPFP.

I have always tried to take advantage of continuous learning opportunities in my own career. EPFP is about expanding your horizons, meeting new people, and learning new ideas. The fellowship is something you take concentrated time to do in the middle of your career, but making time for that work shouldn’t be something you do just in the year of your fellowship. You won’t always have access to that kind of formal group support for learning; but, if you take those lessons to heart, you can make your career into your own ongoing ‘fellowship program.’

I’ve always viewed EPFP as an equity and diversity program. My colleagues at IEL always spoke of EPFP as helping to address the fact that, when it first began, we were seeing a nascent demographic shift in the country, but educational leadership didn’t look like the new face of America. There was opportunity and need for women and people of color in policy and leadership positions and for people with real local experience in the states and districts to get national experience and vice versa. Today, here at Hewlett, we’ve invested in re-launching California EPFP because we need diverse leaders more than ever. We urgently need people who understand the dynamic between the federal government and the states, especially with ESSA swinging the pendulum back out of the Beltway, along with all the issues related to that shift. So, this whole notion of getting together diverse leaders and arming them with a strong network and the new tools they need to take a multi-level perspective seems as live a proposition in today’s rapidly shifting environment as it was when the program was founded.


Tags:  alumni  policy 

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CROSS-BOUNDARY LEADER: SHITAL SHAH (DC EPFP 08-09)

Posted By Jennifer Masutani, Monday, September 12, 2016
Updated: Saturday, September 10, 2016
  Cross-Boundary Leader

Shital C. Shah 
DC EPFP 08-09 

Shital C. Shah is the assistant director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). In this role, she works across AFT departments to help examine and develop policy for and to support implementation of AFT’s community schools area of work around whole school reform and provides support and training to state and local affiliates around the community school strategy and extended learning time. Previously, Shah served as the manager of policy and partnerships at the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership; a consultant at Innovation Network, Inc.; and the director of an East Harlem out-of-school time program with the New York Road Runners Foundation. She also was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. Shah holds a master’s degree from the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School, and a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University.

Community Schools and the AFT

At the AFT, I work with national partners and local affiliates to develop community schools policy at the local, state, and federal levels. Community schools has become a big focus of the AFT, especially since Randi Weingarten became president in 2008. She saw the community schools strategy as one that the union could utilize for education reform, and later she institutionalized community schools work within the AFT. My position was created as an opportunity to work at the local, state, and national levels with different stakeholders—from teachers and union leaders to districts and school boards and community partners to help bring labor management and community partners together to create structures that can support and grow community schools. It’s also a great opportunity to bring teacher voice into the conversation and process of developing community schools.

As a union, we are in a unique position in that we have the ability to engage our members across the country around community schools. Some things that makes us different than other organizations is that we have the power of organizing and advocacy to push policy, we can affect change in behavior at the local level, and union leadership at all levels can play a strong role in both of these. Many leaders are convening community coalitions with other groups to bring them and other folks who might not normally be a part of the education conversation into the fold.

Engaging families is another focus of our community schools work because parent and family involvement in education makes such a big difference for students, schools, and the community. We work to tie together the instructional component and family and community engagement component of academic success.

In the last year, we’ve been able to help our members work with community partners to create deeper instruction. Many educators do this through comprehensive project-based learning. An example might be bringing students into a community garden not just to show how vegetables grow but also using it as an opportunity for math lessons or instruction in other subject areas. The key piece to this is reminding educators that they aren’t the ones having to go out into the community and find partners, but it’s about building a strong relationship with community school resource coordinators, who can leverage existing and burgeoning relationships to support educators and instruction.

Cross-Boundary Collaboration and Education Policy

Working with federal and state policymakers and leaders can be challenging, but I think the key to effectively working with them is informing them of best practices. It’s important to start at the local level to connect the policy to educators on the ground, because showing local support for a policy and having educators share their stories about a policy is crucial at the statehouse. In fact, many state-level policy proposals are built on local practices.

The big gap in almost any policy is not having enough local voices making the case for it. I think the advantage for us at AFT is having educators provide that voice to policymakers, especially around the community schools strategy. It can be easy to forget that, in community school efforts, instruction is still a key component, and educators can provide valuable insight about the impact and changing conditions that come with community schools.

Cross-Boundary Leadership

One of the benefits of being part of a national organization is that we have to mirror what we ask local communities to do—collaborative across boundaries. This is a huge part of community schools work on the ground as well as at the state and federal levels. Our collective work involves different stakeholders across multiple systems, and the union recognizes that in order to be effective, there has to be a collaborative voice speaking for the community schools movement.

Leadership Lessons Learned

One challenge with community schools is that places need to figure out how to bring all partners, including local unions, to the table from the beginning so there is a complete vision. The main takeaway from this work is that a vision can’t be created in a silo and then have expectations that people will just buy into it. Everyone involved needs an authentic voice from the beginning.

EPFP Experience and Value

Before I became an EPFP Fellow, I was working at the Coalition for Community Schools and meeting with different partners around community schools. EPFP allowed me to connect with national organizations in a different way and on other issues like superintendent leadership and Title I funding formulas. It allowed me to see different layers of the organizations I was already working with in order to deepen my own work in community schools and get closer to the whole education field.

I think the biggest value of EPFP is the connections that you make during your Fellowship year. The DC cohort is a little different because many of us are connected through our work outside of EPFP, but the program is great because you get to know people at a deeper level. It’s also a great networking opportunity. In many of the state sites, I think the value is that you have practitioners at the school and district and state levels in one place—and those are all of the people you need to create policy and change. EPFP gives these people a place to see different perspectives to change and improve local and state policy.

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Cross-Boundary Leader: Bela Shah Spooner (NY EPFP 99-00)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Thursday, July 21, 2016
Updated: Thursday, July 7, 2016

 

Cross-Boundary Leader

Bela Shah Spooner 
NY EPFP 99-00

Bela Shah Spooner is the program manager for expanded learning in the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families at the National League of Cities (NLC). For over a decade, she has been at NLC helping to inform municipal officials about the importance of afterschool and summer learning opportunities. She launched NLC’s Afterschool Policy Advisors Network (APAN) in 2005, which has grown to include more than 400 cities, and has provided technical assistance to more than 40 cities focusing on building citywide systems of afterschool programs. She has also authored Cities and Statewide Afterschool Networks Partnering to Support Afterschool Programs and NLC’s 2011 report, Municipal Leadership Afterschool: Citywide Approaches Spreading across the Country.

Prior to NLC, Spooner worked for the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership and co-wrote the Coalition report, Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools.


Why Afterschool Programs are Important to City Leaders

A huge part of our work at NLC is to not only help our members—elected city officials and senior city staff—understand their role in creating more afterschool programs, but also to help other partners like school districts better understand the role that cities can play in these efforts. We know that kids spend only a fraction of their time in school, so we use that message to communicate how they can use the rest of the hours of the day to support students.

Many city leaders have become champions for afterschool and summer learning programs because they understand that they’re also responsible for the children and youth in their city in the out-of-school time hours and it’s a great opportunity for city leaders to get involved and support young people. One of the major factors that has led to greater involvement of city leaders is public safety. Data shows that between 3 and 6 pm, there are higher levels of crime committed to and by kids. City leaders recognize that quality afterschool programs can keep kids safe and engaged in learning, and reduce crime in the community. They also understand the broader implications that afterschool programs bring, academic and otherwise, to their cities. Local leaders are particularly supportive of increasing academic achievement because of the great impact it has on communities around jobs and economic development, and supporting working families.

City leaders are also becoming more aware of the resources that are available to support kids in their communities. Many cities are already investing in infrastructure and programming to support youth in multiple ways, such as libraries and parks and recreation, so it’s not a far reach to get them more involved in supporting afterschool learning initiatives. A challenge we see is that departments and activities within city governments are often siloed, so efforts that touch young people are happening but are not coordinated in a streamlined way to maximize impact.

Serving Young People in Different Areas

We know there are a lot of afterschool and youth-focused programs in communities but they are not necessarily distributed in a way that is accessible to young people. In many cases, demographics and income distribution in cities shift over time and change to the point where the existing infrastructure is no longer as effective as it once was. To address these challenges, we work with cities to begin with a mapping process to get a visual of where programs, schools, and kids are located, as well as where there are areas of high poverty, crime, and teen pregnancy. This allows cities to identify barriers, such as public transportation gaps or new highways that have made it difficult for young people to access different parts of town. Mapping helps to clarify the misconception of why needs aren’t being met when there may be services available in the community—sometimes, they just aren’t accessible to the people who need them and honestly, many parents don’t even have access to the information of where those programs may be. When more resources and partners come together during the mapping process, it helps provide a better sense of where to target resources and efforts to fill the gaps.

The Role of Students, Families, and Communities in Expanding Afterschool

One way for students, families, and community members to be involved is to track the campaigns and priority issues of elected city officials to better understand where they are coming from—figure out how to talk about the issue in a way that will resonate for them. In our case, we’ve found success in approaching it from a public safety and economic development lens. We also encourage mayors to use their convening authority to bring together community stakeholders to keep them informed on what is happening in their city.

Providers and their supporters have a unique role in that they can present information on their programs and develop relationships with the mayor’s office and city council in a number of ways. In addition to participating in community meetings and spreading the word about their work among community members, one of the best ways they can engage city leaders is to simply invite them to their program. Mayors and city councilmembers enjoy opportunities to engage with their community members, especially young people. Providing them with photo opportunities and positive press, and getting them to your program to interact with young people is a great way to showcase their work and give credit to elected officials for supporting what they do. In short, it’s all about relationship building. If afterschool is important to you or you’re a provider, you can position yourself as the mayor’s go-to person for that type of work.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

So many stakeholders in the community have their own interests in supporting young people, from public safety to economic development to quality of life, but they all have the same broad focus: helping kids be successful. When you’re building a citywide or county-wide system, you have to think about the unlikely or unusual players that you want to bring into the conversation to make sure it’s comprehensive and representative of key voices and include people with influenceOne way to bring those people together is to speak their language to get your message across. Use their focus and interests to build the message that you share to get them involved in your cause. The mayor’s bully pulpit is a powerful tool for this, so bringing in city leaders can help bring in even more diverse resources and supports. The goal is to galvanize folks to invest time and money in your cause by building and leveraging relationships within your community.

Cross-boundary leadership can be challenging in a number of ways. Limited funding and resources is a challenge in many respects, from potential partners seeing each other as competition for competitive grants and organizations working on their priorities with limited resources to few funding streams available to allow good ideas to be carried out. Loss of autonomy over an area of work is another challenge, and providers and organizations can be hesitant to partner up because they will lose that control over their work and how it is carried out.

The important thing to remember when facing these challenges is that we’re all in this work for the same reason, and working together helps to create a stronger system to serve more kids. It communicates the collective benefit of everyone’s work and inspires people to come together for the greater good.

Leadership Lessons Learned

The biggest leadership lesson I’ve learned is to be confident in the knowledge and expertise you bring to the table. It can be intimidating to talk with mayors and other leaders who you see on TV or read about in the news, but it’s important to remember that you’re talking to someone who ran for office to represent their city and the people in it… and the youth are an essential part of the success and appeal of that city. Remember that you have direct knowledge and first-hand information (and perhaps even good data!) about the needs and challenges that a subsection of youth face in the city. What you know may be very valuable for a city official to hear and understand. Instead of getting caught up with titles and who someone is, you have to focus on the fact that you know what you’re talking about and it’s important for them to know about it as well if you’re trying to improve the odds for the children you work with. Present yourself as a partner to help and bring additional data and information if they request more and see where the conversation may go.

EPFP Experience

EPFP had a big influence on my professional career. When I was a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University I got pulled in to help run the New York site. It was so interesting to watch the process that the next year I asked if I could be a Fellow. The EPFP experience enhanced my graduate education experience, augmented the policy work I was interested in, and completely redirected my path. It was through EPFP that I met Mike Usdan, President of IEL at the time and now a senior fellow there . He saw the spark I had for federal education policy, and every time he saw me he encouraged me to move to DC and gave me opportunities to connect with people here.  That’s when I met Marty Blank and took an opportunity to support the Coalition for Community Schools. And many years later, I’m proud to now serve on its Steering Committee. EPFP gave me a basic framework of education policy but also exposure to a new world and potential job opportunities. It helped me look at issues from different angles and perspectives, and was a great way to start my professional career.


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Cross-Boundary Leader: Gay Kingman (DC EPFP 79-80)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Updated: Thursday, July 7, 2016

 

Cross-Boundary Leader

Gay Kingman (DC EPFP 79-80)

Gay Kingman (DC EPFP 79-80) is the executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association (GPTCA) and the Coalition of Large Tribes. GPTCA—which is made up of tribal leaders from 16 sovereign nations from Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota—meets regularly to make administrative decisions and review legislation affecting all Tribal Governments. As the executive director, Gay manages GPTCA’s affairs, works with members of Congress, develops position papers and resolutions, works with the Administration, and coordinates with other tribes. As the leader of the Coalition of Large Tribes, she advocates for and protects the unique land, economic, jurisdictional, and funding issues faced by tribes with large land bases and populations.






Prior to her current roles, she served as a consultant for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and for the Tribal Leaders Project at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government. Gay’s previous roles include co-founder of Kingman-Wapato & Associates, associate at the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management, director of public relations and director of the Seminar Institute at the National Indian Gaming Association, and executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. She spent 25 years in the education field as a teacher and administrator, and was elected as president of the National Indian Education Association. During her time as an EPFP Fellow in Washington, DC, Gay was on the transition team that created the U.S. Department of Education under President Carter. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government.

Education in the GPTCA

The GPTCA addresses everything from health care to law enforcement to education for the member tribes. On the education front, we’re working on legislation with the Bureau of Indian Education, which manages tribal schools on reservations, where a majority of Indian students are enrolled in public school. We’ve taken official action that tribes will be in charge of their own schools and will determine their own accreditation and teacher education processes. Historically, the education system has not been the best for Indian students, so tribes are moving toward developing their own standards and practices for educating their students.

Tribal Government Leadership

In the Great Plains, our tribes have huge areas of land; in some cases, they’re bigger than Rhode Island or Connecticut. Tribal governments are full-service operations with their own health care, transportation, and education systems, and leadership is very important in all of those areas. Leadership styles may differ between tribes—some are small, some are big, and they all have their own unique needs and strengths—but leadership is critical to all of them. Tribal governments depend on strong leaders in order to run effectively, and government officials need to trust each other and work together in order to manage all of their systems.

In an effort to show the importance of leadership in tribal governments, I worked with the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University to develop a course in leadership with an emphasis on tribal leaders. Students viewed videos of tribal leaders talking about their experiences and then were able to pull out the leadership qualities that the tribal leaders exemplified. We wanted to show students how tribal governments worked and what was important to tribal leaders.

Cross-Boundary Leadership

Cross-boundary leadership is a big part of my role as executive director of GPTCA. We’re made up of 16 member tribes of different sizes, and part of my responsibilities is to bring them together and work with the tribal leaders on policies and legislation that are important to the member tribes. It involves working across different sectors that interact with each other, either directly or indirectly, to get the solutions that we need.

For example, my reservation is 180 miles long and many of our roads are poor, especially in inclement weather. This transportation issue affects many other sectors, including education, as school buses need to travel on our roads to get students to and from school. Leaders from both transportation and education have to work together in order to determine the best policy changes to improve our roads to make them safe and to allow our students to get to school throughout the year.

Leading across boundaries comes with its own set of challenges as well. A big part of my work involves working with members of Congress and other policymakers to share with them our perspective and encourage them to pass legislation that affects our tribes. It can sometimes be challenging to inform them about what life is like for us on reservations, or to educate them about common Native American stereotypes and help them to see beyond those. But working together to improve policies that impact our tribes is critical and I continue to create and build those relationships with leaders in Washington, DC.

Leadership Lessons Learned

One major thing that I gained from my participation in EPFP that it opened up a whole new world to me in Washington. I was able to better understand how the government worked and build paths that led to the Administration and Congress and the judiciary branch. Now that I’m in South Dakota, I know who to call and where to go to get assistance or create policy. It helped me understand the importance of a network and how all of the people and parts fit together.

Another leadership lesson I’ve learned is that you don’t always have to take what is first presented to you. If something doesn’t feel quite right, or you think it can be better, it’s worth it to speak up and make changes where they are necessary.

EPFP Experience

In addition to providing me with a better understanding of how the federal government worked, EPFP gave me the knowledge and foundation to interact with others in a policy setting. My career has changed drastically in many ways over the years—I spent 25 years in education before becoming a leader in Native American policy—and throughout all of it, I was able to build upon what I learned in EPFP to inform my work.


 


 


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Cross-Boundary Leader: M. Rene Islas (DC EPFP 01-02)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Tuesday, June 28, 2016

 

Cross-Boundary Leader

M. René Islas (DC EPFP 01-02)

M. René Islas (DC EPFP 01-02) is the executive director of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), an organization that supports and develops policies and practices that encourage and respond to the diverse expressions of gifts and talents in children and youth from all cultures, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and socioeconomic groups. Prior to joining NAGC, Islas served as senior vice president of Learning Forward, where he launched the Center for Results to support leaders in education in developing systems to improve teacher effectiveness.

Islas has had a long career in education policy at the federal, state, and local levels, and has served as senior vice president of B&D Consulting, where he launched their K-12 education practice, and as special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Education and chief of staff to the Assistant Secretary of Education in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.






Working with Gifted Children

My organization, the National Association for Gifted Children, supports and celebrates the gifts and talents of children and youth, but there are many misconceptions and stereotypes out there about these students. A common one is that gifted children can do everything on their own because they have above-average skills or ability in different areas, and many people assume that they will achieve their full potential just by being in a classroom. This isn’t the case; gifted children need to be supported, taught, and challenged to achieve, and not just left alone to do their work.

People also sometimes assume that giftedness doesn’t exist among every population of students, which leads to a lack of diversity among those that identified as gifted and participate in gifted and talented programs. There are many factors that play a part in some students not being identified as gifted: being overlooked by teachers and parents, cultural and linguistic barriers, and even assessment instruments that can sometimes not be 100 percent valid or reliable in identifying gifted students. To overcome this, we’re looking harder across the landscape to find talent among all populations through universal screenings and increased rigor for all students.

Improving Teacher Preparation and Professional Learning

In my role at the Learning Forward Center for Results, I focused on improving teacher preparation and professional learning and supports for effective instruction. Hands down, the most important factor in increasing student achievement is the teacher, so ensuring they are well prepared and have the supports they need to be successful will lead to the success of their students. My mentor, former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, said that student success is all about the interaction between students and their teachers. In fact, the job of everyone at a school, from bus drivers to janitors to attendance officers, is to make sure that interaction is optimal. And when teachers are at the top of their game in terms of content knowledge, preparation, and professional development, students will respond to that and grow in terms of their own learning and understanding of subjects.

The Policymaking Process

In my time at the U.S. Department of Education, I was able to experience the policymaking process firsthand. One of the biggest lessons I learned was that when you set high goals and expectations, you’ll get so much further than you expected. For example, when we set out to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in the early 2000s, we focused on the line that ended up becoming the name of the law: No Child Left Behind. Some would argue that is unattainable—to ensure that no child is left behind academically—but we started out with that mission and let it guide us through the policymaking process.

Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

Whenever we’re talking about equity in service of children, regardless of their backgrounds, we have to look at all of the various factors in their lives that influence success, whether that’s school, home life, their communities, or their health and well-being. Because those factors are in different areas, you have to be willing to work across those different sectors—education, social work, health—to truly make a difference. The principle of cross-boundary leadership that EPFP has always focused on is something that we as advocates and policymakers need to be sure we are doing every day.

That being said, there can be many challenges to leading across boundaries. One of the biggest barriers can be people’s beliefs. Individuals come to the table with their own beliefs that aren’t necessarily negative or intentionally hurtful, but by being kind and not addressing those differences, you can limit the potential or opportunities that children have. That’s why it’s important for us to work together across boundaries to find solutions to these institutional and cultural challenges that do exist. Leading across boundaries can help to change people’s beliefs or open their eyes to new ideas that can help to overcome these challenges.

Leadership Lessons Learned

A big blessing in my career has been having great mentors. I don’t think I could have progressed through my early career and had the opportunities that I did without those mentors. One of my mentors, Christopher Cross, sponsored me to participate in EPFP when he was CEO of the Center for Basic Education. He encouraged and believed in me and knew what I could accomplish, and he wanted to support the type of learning and development that EPFP provided. That experience led me to finding others who have been important parts of my career, like Henry Johnson, who is a North Carolina EPFP alum and still a close friend a mentor. EPFP, like many of my other roles, has allowed me to find mentors who have similar values as me, but who are also willing to challenge what I know and encourage me to do more.

EPFP Experience

When I was an EPFP Fellow, I was focusing on teacher effectiveness. EPFP gave me the opportunity to test my knowledge and thoughts about policy in a safe environment that encouraged me to explore and develop my opinions on a given topic with my cohort. EPFP also helped me create lasting relationships both in the general education space and in my area of interest. I can think of many friends I made through EPFP with whom I’ve stayed connected, whether it’s walking around town or speaking on a panel together.

I think EPFP really does achieve its objectives to help Fellows develop their understanding, knowledge, and expertise in policy, leadership, and networking. The program is especially great for those who want to get into education policy early in their career, because it gives them a strong base in those three areas and allows them to grow during the Fellowship but also flourish beyond it.


 


 


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