Professional development makes a difference
Faculty in the Oklahoma State University educational leadership program knew they had established something special with the TeleEd program, but no one could have imagined the impact it would have during an unexpected worldwide pandemic.
The TeleEd program, a partnership between the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences Project ECHO and OSU-Tulsa, launched almost two years ago as a resource and support system for superintendents, principals and other school leaders in rural areas across the state, said Dr. Ed Harris, Williams Chair of Education Leadership in School Administration. The program serves as a platform for educators to share best practices, receive ongoing and timely professional development and collaborate to help resolve complex issues and questions regarding Oklahoma schools and its students.
“We're all in the education business together,” Harris said. “What benefits one district benefits the entire state.”
According to the TeleED website, 94 percent of Oklahoma districts are rural or town districts. Harris said while the unique challenges rural districts face should have been augmented by the coronavirus pandemic, school district leaders instead were ready to support one another through TeleED.
“We are really serving every educational community in every county of the state,” Harris said. “Many other states in the U.S. haven’t been able to serve a fraction of the districts we have, either because they weren’t as established before the pandemic or didn’t have the partnerships we did.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Education and the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA) partner with TeleED, while also holding separate programs for special education, TeleSPED, and state policies, TeleEDGE, Harris said. While between 10 and 30 attendees typically attended the weekly calls when the program was established almost two years ago, attendance has skyrocketed to as many as 500 people per call as school leaders seek ideas for addressing coronavirus in their schools and communities.
Dr. April Grace, superintendent of Shawnee Public Schools and a member of the TeleED leadership team, helps to coordinate meetings. Coming from a larger, more urban school district, Grace feels a responsibility to give back.
“It has helped us extend our arms a little bit further out to the state to share some of the opportunities we have in the metro area,” Grace said. “I enjoy giving back to that larger scope of work.”
Recent TeleED calls have featured topics including state testing requirements, plans for reentry in the fall and teacher mental health, Grace said. Dr. Don Raleigh, superintendent of Pryor Public Schools, TeleED leader and CCOSA president, said superintendents are encouraged to submit case studies of past events in their school district, and attendees brainstorm strategies to address them if similar events were to happen in their own districts.
“I’ve been an educator for more than 30 years, and each call I learn something new,” Raleigh said. “It considers things that maybe in the heat of the situation you haven't really had a chance to digest or think through.”
Developing a statewide network of school leaders laid a foundation to address coronavirus-related concerns and placed Oklahoma educators ahead of many states suddenly adapting to distance learning, Harris said. However, he initially founded TeleED to address a different challenge: graduation.
According to statistics published by The Graduation Effect, only 82 percent of Oklahoma students graduate. If this rose to a rate of 90 percent, The Graduation Effect data shows Oklahoma could see the creation of 100 new jobs, $55.6 million in GDP, and $2 million in state and local tax revenue.
Yet, Harris said not all school districts have equal resources to use in addressing graduation rates.
“When we started TeleED almost two years ago, we were doing it primarily for rural districts,” Harris said. “Rural areas just do not have the resources, whether it’s fiscal, human or community resources, that urban districts do.”
Rather than serving as a distraction to the overall mission of the TeleEDGE program to raise graduation rates, Harris said seeing school leaders’ response to the coronavirus pandemic as an encouragement.
“This pandemic has brought to the forefront that even though we have many districts, and some are classified as rural and some are classified as urban, we are really one big system,” Harris said. “We win when one person succeeds, and when one district is having a problem, it affects the entire state.”
In addition to TeleED, TeleSPED and TeleEDGE, Harris said OSU education leadership faculty are working to launch a fourth program, TeleNGAGE, for the 2020 fall semester. The program will model the community, family and school partnerships in countries like Finland, Switzerland and Sweden.
Dr. Kathy Curry, OSU associate professor of school administration, works with Harris on the programs.
"One of the missing pieces in family/school partnerships has been family voice,” Curry said. “It is important for schools to understand student and family needs beyond the walls of schools. TeleNGAGE is a platform that will enhance family voice even from the most marginalized families."
Many see the coronavirus pandemic as a challenge, but Curry sees it as an opportunity.
“During the COVID pandemic, families have taken on more responsibility for the education of children,” Curry said. “The timing of TeleNGAGE to begin in Fall 2020 is ideal to facilitate healthy partnerships and shared understandings between families and schools."
While one lesson amidst the pandemic is no one can predict the future, Harris added he is optimistic for the programs’ future after seeing the resilience of Oklahoman school leaders.
“No one had any preparation for this,” Harris said. “They don’t have a course on how to lead during a COVID-19 pandemic. However, the collaboration and graciousness each of the participants was really encouraging. We sort of band together in the worst times.”
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