Three hundred forty-five miles from the University of Denver is the West End School District RE-2. Tucked into the southwest region of Colorado, West End Serves the communities of Bedrock, Naturita, Nucla, and Paradox, covers over 1,000 square miles, and serves approximately 250 total students. Providing education to the rural farming communities, the district faces challenges like any other school district; yet its isolated location brings with it a different set of obstacles when providing the best possible education for students and teachers alike.

Mike Epright, West End’s Superintendent, has made a push and a commitment to maintain quality education. According to West End’s website, the district does so “by providing elevated academic classes, vocational and technical training, and special education programs… Students throughout the district also have the advantage of excellent technology and the opportunity to obtain multiple college credits prior to graduation.”

The district also made a commitment to build capacity through the development of its educators by participating in the Colorado Department of Education Turnaround Leadership Grant Program. The Turnaround Leadership grant, as described by the Colorado Department of Education, “establishes and promotes leadership training specifically for the turnaround environment and is an integral part of Colorado’s state-wide strategy to improve the performance of students in the lowest-performing schools and districts in the state.”

The grant works in two ways: one grant is for the participant (e.g., West End School District RE-2), and one grant is for the provider (e.g., Morgridge College of Education). Together, the entities are able to provide training to educators who can then return to their districts with the tools they need to implement lasting, positive change.

In 2015 two worlds became one as the West End School District partnered with the Morgridge College of Education’s Education Leadership Policy Studies (ELPS) Mountain Cohort. Through this unique partnership, two educators from West End were able to engage in Morgridge College’s ELPS classes in order to expand their personal breadth of knowledge and enrich their district. This fall, another West End educator will join the 2017 Mountain Cohort.

Suddenly, 345 miles was not too far.

“Having the opportunity to develop and implement current research in school improvement, the West End School District has been able to benefit from having two ‘grow your own’ educators take part in the University of Denver’s Aspiring Leaders/ELPS MA Program,” said Epright. “Over the two-year commitment, these two leaders helped shape the instruction and assessment in the district and provided current professional development to staff which shaped a new program change to Project Based Learning.”

Hank Nelson, Morgridge graduate and Instructional Leader at Nucla Elementary School, agrees with Epright. “Participating in the ELPS MA Program was the most beneficial, fulfilling, and impactful experience of my professional career,” he said. “Not one experience failed to be valuable, developing my growth as a leader while indirectly providing a service to the needs of our district. This program made me into an equitable, adaptable, data-driven, innovative, inquiring, and action-research oriented leader.”

An action-oriented leader is exactly the type of leader Epright wants in his schools.

“…through hard work and cooperation, they set a vision of educating each student to the best of their ability,” he added. “I strongly recommend all rural districts reach out to the programming offered!”

The Morgridge College of Education is committed to addressing the needs of both rural and turnaround schools. With its constant adaptation to meet the needs of its students, Morgridge hopes to bridge the divide between distance and hands-on learning. Its Mountain Cohort specifically strives to create an opportunity for rural communities to invest in school leaders who were already part of those communities. In this way, turnaround leadership can organically occur.

The ELPS program, which earned a top 20 ranking in Best Education Administration and Supervision by the U.S. News and World Report in 2016, is now accepting applications for its Mountain Cohort for fall 2017.

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