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Preparing Educational Leaders of Change

Dr. Bonnie Fusarelli is an NC State University Faculty Scholar in the College of Education and a national leader in educational leadership, policy and school improvement.

“Great schools have great leaders,” says Dr. Bonnie Fusarelli, an NC State University Faculty Scholar in the College of Education and a national leader in educational leadership, policy and school improvement.

Put into practice, that simple concept can pay big dividends.

Thanks to Fusarelli, and the Northeast Leadership Academy (NELA) that she founded at NC State, more North Carolina public schools are getting the innovative leaders they need to improve the education — and lives — of children in one of the state’s most historically underserved regions.

Each year, the academy selects up to 15 outstanding, experienced teachers from high-need, low-performing schools in 14 rural counties near North Carolina’s northern border who show strong leadership and community-building potential.

These educators graduate from NELA’s rigorous two-year program with a master of school administration degree from NC State and a principal’s license. They also graduate with the knowledge, skills, experience and ongoing support to return to those communities to help their faculty become stronger and better teachers and to increase student achievement.

The impact has been extraordinary.

Within the first two years, schools with NELA-trained principals show dramatic improvements in students’ grade-level proficiency and attendance, as well as significant decreases in suspensions and behavioral incidents — and these gains continue in subsequent years. One example: NELA graduate Melissa Richardson, principal of Hollister Elementary School in Halifax County, has seen double-digit increases in her students’ composite scores every year for the three years that she has been the school’s leader.

NELA has proven so successful that Fusarelli, who is a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development, has designed training for already-practicing principals and other programs for counties throughout the state. By year’s end, NELA will be working with a quarter of the counties in North Carolina.

National organizations are noticing, too. The University Council for Educational Administration presented NELA with its 2014 Award for Exemplary University-Based Educational Leadership Preparation.

Grants and philanthropy have been absolutely essential to NELA’s success, Fusarelli says. The academy’s launch in 2010 grew out of a pilot grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and subsequent funding from state and federal agencies, foundations, businesses and individuals has made it possible for extraordinary educators who would never have been able to afford a master’s program to get the training they need to be agents of change in their high-need communities.