One of the greatest challenges North Carolina’s lowest-performing public schools face is a lack of consistent, skilled, committed leadership. NC State’s Northeast Leadership Academy (NELA) takes a radically different approach to school leadership development in 14 counties in northeastern North Carolina, a geographically isolated rural region with persistent poverty, high rates of teen pregnancy, infant mortality and other deficit metrics. NELA seeks to increase student achievement in this region by preparing and retaining principals in high-poverty, hard-to-staff, historically low-performing schools. Each component of the Academy is anchored in research-based best practices in leadership preparation and is designed to meet the specific needs of schools in North Carolina.
NELA takes a very different approach to traditional master’s in education programs. The program teaches participants powerful mindsets and skill sets that are changing the trajectory of historically low-performing schools, and trainings are held in the communities where graduates will serve as principals.
NC State’s intensive, highly-selective cohort model combines coursework with supervised principal residency experiences, utilizes data collection and analysis at the school level, and places an emphasis on connecting to the local community.
NELA faculty choose to explicitly reject deficit models of leadership preparation. Aspiring leaders learn to first understand the root causes of poverty and low academic achievement and then harness community assets to begin a new narrative of high expectations and hope.
Since the program began in 2010, NELA has graduated 140 principals and has seen an improved turnover rate in the 14 partner districts. Research shows it takes approximately five years to put a teaching staff in place as well as fully implement policies and practices that will positively impact the school’s performance, yet NELA principals have documented notable improvements during their first year, and those gains continue in schools with a NELA principal for two and more years in a row.
NELA has collaborated with partners from the university, government, philanthropic organizations, school district leaders, and local community agencies.
The seeds of the partnership were sown through a planning grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and NC’s Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), which supported the original design of the pre-service preparation component of NELA. NC State faculty met with top leaders at NCDPI, NCDPI’s Turnaround Team, and the Northeast’s Local Education Agencies (LEAs) (school district leaders in the Northeast) to engage in the planning for NELA. NC State College of Education already had ongoing projects/research in many of these 14 rural districts. Educational Leadership faculty built upon the already established relationships with these districts and region of the state. As a result, NC State and the consortium of school districts have a well-established history of working together to improve outcomes for students.
NELA graduates make a three-year, post-degree commitment to work in high-need schools in northeastern NC, in turn reducing leadership turnover. NELA graduates will create a tipping point (a critical mass of similarly educated, highly motivated, and networked leaders) —creating a new narrative of high expectations and performance that will continue to lead high-need schools and continue to drive significant improvements in student achievement.