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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

In February 2020, Jacqueline Adam-Taylor accepted a new job almost 2,000 miles away from her home in Springfield, Massachusetts. She packed up her desk as a high school principal and moved to Fort Worth, Texas to lead a kindergarten program, just after her new school and others shuttered because of Covid-19.

The turnaround specialist felt turned around herself. So when Adam-Taylor heard about executive coaching from the nonprofit group The Learning Accelerator, she jumped at it.

“They said free, I said ‘sure,’ then they said executive coaching and I said ‘double sure,’” Adam-Taylor said.

The Always Ready for Learning Network that Adam-Taylor tapped into was born of the global pandemic. Seeing school leaders facing immediate and seemingly-impossible questions surrounding remote learning, distancing and more, The Learning Accelerator whipped up a pro-bono coaching hotline staffed by professional consultants.

“We were seeing overly exhausted leaders trying to sort through a field flooded with free resources and a professional service sector with untapped expertise,” said Nithi Thomas, a partner at The Learning Accelerator.

“I love this coaching because it allows me to take a breath of air and imagine things that aren’t 6 feet apart, testing and [planning for] field day.”

Jacqueline Adam-Taylor, a school leader in Texas

With funding from The Walton Family Foundation and Carnegie Corporation of New York, the nonprofit created a free system that paired coaches with school leaders who needed personalized, immediate solutions. (Carnegie is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

“Leaders could say ‘I need help’ today and be connected with a coach within 24 hours,” said Kelly Ocasio, a Senior Consultant with 2Revolutions LLC, a leaders’ coach with TLA.

Among the first school leaders to use the network last spring was Donna Cross, the director of multi-tiered system of supports and social and emotional learning for the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 in Evanston, Illinois. Cross needed to research and plan a Zoom presentation to 483 staff members on remote instruction. 

“District leaders are supposed to know everything, but we don’t know everything,” Cross said.

“What does intervention look like remotely? I’d never done that before — it was totally novel.”

Her coach, Ocasio, provided research, resources and helped her to practice her presentation.

Ocasio said many school leaders used the coaches as thought partners. Leaders didn’t know where to begin and, in essence, needed someone to talk to. The coaches — from companies including LINC Learning, InnovateEDU, and Afton Partners — were able to offer a wide lens of resources and knowledge.

In the last year, Always Ready for Learning’s coaching network supported 151 schools or districts nationwide that serve 1,352,000 kids in 41 states.

“We provided targeted interventions and perspectives that they wouldn’t think of because they were in crisis mode,” Ocasio said.

In the last year, the coaching network supported 151 schools or districts nationwide that serve 1,352,000 kids in 41 states, Thomas said. The school leaders received the coaching for free; The Learning Accelerator raised nearly $900,000 to create the program. The group is now fundraising to continue the work.

Although most schools have moved past the surge of pandemic-related crises, school leaders say they still need coaching to address the effects of the pandemic. Experts can guide K-12 schools in spending their allotment of the almost $123 billion in federal COVID relief funds.

“If you look at the last time funding was provided to schools, they scrambled,” said Thomas, the TLA partner. “How do we give that type of guidance and leadership to district leadership and school principals who are sometimes so bogged down by the day-to-day that they can’t think ahead about tackling learning loss?”

Other education thinkers are calling this a moment to plan thoughtfully for a new future for schools. Author and film producer Ted Dintersmith founded the What School Could Be app to allow innovative educators to network with each other. The free app is like a private Facebook network, allowing teachers and leaders to share ideas and resources, ask questions and learn from other trailblazers in webinars.

Adam-Taylor is looking toward the future with her Always Ready to Learn coach. As part of the IDEA Public Schools charter network, she’s developing a vision to found a school based on an equity principle.

Adam-Taylor, an expert at systems and operations, struggled at first to put her concept on paper. Her network coach is pushing her to answer big-picture questions such as “What does it mean to have a positive race identity in an elementary school?”

“I love this coaching because it allows me to take a breath of air and imagine things that aren’t 6 feet apart, testing and [planning for] field day,” Adam-Taylor said.

Ocasio noted that this coaching is unique. Her organization’s primary consulting work often takes months of set up and tackles school- or district-wide initiatives. The coaching network, however, focuses on individual school leaders’ concerns and objectives and gets them rapid assistance without financial barriers.

“It showed a need in the market to have free, open access to coaching in a way we didn’t know was necessary before,” Ocasio said.

This story about school leaders was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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