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Meet the Regional Centers of Excellence Team

August 20, 2018

The Regional Centers of Excellence (RCEs) work in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to help schools make long-lasting improvements to student learning, providing hands-on support to help guarantee that every student has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. The RCEs are made up a team of education specialists, called advocates, who travel across the state to help guide schools and districts through the process of identifying needs, creating an action plan, and implementing changes to improve student outcomes. RCE school advocates specialize in the areas of literacy, equity, math, special education, English language development, high school graduation, and principal and district support.

The most important resource advocates bring districts is active implementation, a systems-based approach that links all of a system’s moving parts and builds a process that creates a way to sustain the good work being done by schools. Advocates do a lot for their schools and bring their unique backgrounds and expertise to each unique situation and challenge. Let’s meet three of them!

Meet three RCE team members who work every day to make a positive difference in our schools!

Sarah Sirna

Sarah Sirna photo

School Advocate

Central Lakes Regional Center of Excellence at Resource Training and Solutions, Sartell, Minnesota

“I have had the pleasure of working on the Central Lakes team for five years, and in that time, have served as an English language development specialist, equity specialist, and am currently in the position of literacy and equity specialist. Before joining the centers, I was a high school English and reading teacher, literacy specialist, English learner coordinator, and data/professional learning communities (PLCs) coach.

The best part about this job is that district and school needs are so different. I start the process of identifying needs by listening to stories from staff and students. I use these narratives to guide leadership teams to make sense of their state and local data. We create a school improvement plan; then, I coach them to monitor the change process and build their skills to implement new teaching practices. Most days, I discuss plans to implement evidence-based practices (EBPs) with administration and build leadership teams. I model the use of an active implementation process to problem-solve challenges that arise.

The greatest reward of working with the Regional Centers of Excellence is that this work sits at the intersection of personal and professional for me. I actively work to ensure equity and inclusion in the communities I live and serve. At its best, the work of the centers positions educators and leaders to use their experience, expertise and research to collectively create equitable learning environments for students, staff and families. My best days are spent with leadership teams using active implementation to problem-solve what seem to be insurmountable challenges. I finish these days humbled by my colleagues and energized for the possibilities of what could be. I continue to work for the centers because I believe in Commissioner Cassellius’ message that Minnesota has the strongest, most knowledgeable educators; it is through supporting the change in their practice that our students flourish.”

Connie Clark

Connie Clark photo

School Advocate and Special Education Specialist

Northern Sky Regional Center of Excellence, Northwest Service Cooperative, Thief River Falls, Minnesota

“In 36 years of teaching middle and high schools students receiving services through special education, I never sat at the table with a family member who didn’t have hopes and dreams for their child for safe and successful social and academic experiences. I learned through that lived experience there are many frames of reference for success and just as many pathways to achieving that success. In 2012, I got a phone call from a friend, asking if I was really going to retire or would consider applying for a position with a new project evolving out of Minnesota’s No Child Left Behind Waiver. Guess how I answered that question.

I am beginning my seventh year as a school advocate with a focus on special education. As an advocate, I am on-the-ground assistance for district and school leadership teams on their continuous improvement journey. A day in my life varies greatly. Many of my days are spent on the road traveling to meet with district and school leadership teams, or teachers and students in classrooms. Some days are spent in my office preparing for work in schools. Office days also include attending MDE webinars, meeting virtually with team members, conducting phone calls with school leaders and RCE team members, and documenting work for reporting purposes. Our six RCE teams meet quarterly at MDE to learn from each other and build our capacity to coach equitable outcomes for all students.

My ‘go to’ strategies are asking questions and listening, whether I’m working as a school improvement generalist or a special education specialist. This work is about relationships, beliefs and intentional systems processes. In my partnership with schools, I offer evidence-based resources and tools from the RCEs and MDE collaborative work to support technical and adaptive needs. We know that technical supports without adaptive shifts in thinking will not yield improved outcomes for all students. For example, creating leadership implementation teams, building high-quality data visualizations, or selecting EBPs, without digging into beliefs, attitudes and dispositions, will not result in improved outcomes for all students.

Our work as educators at every level is to build and strengthen our systems to welcome every child every day with a focus on their strengths. We are beginning a new, three-year partnership with districts and are in the process of scheduling time to meet leadership, learn about successes and challenges in their systems, build positive working relationships, strive for continuous school improvement with many stakeholders, and plan for next steps.”

Carol A. Swanson

Carol Swanson photo

Implementation Specialist and Reading Specialist

Southeast-Metro Regional Center of Excellence, Rochester, Minnesota

“I grew up on a small dairy farm in northwestern Minnesota. I graduated high school and attended Mankato State University (Minnesota State University, Mankato). I then moved to Palm Springs, California, where I taught grades kindergarten, one, two, and three, and earned a master’s degree in reading and language arts, while my two children were born. In 1998, I moved back to southern Minnesota and taught seventh and eighth grade reading and communications for five years before becoming an instructional coach in an elementary school in support of the Minnesota Reading First grant. In 2012, I joined the Regional Centers of Excellence as an implementation specialist and reading specialist. In 2017, I attained my principal licensure through Hamline University. I now live in Owatonna, Minnesota.

As an advocate, I typically work with district staff, school administrators, school leadership teams and individual teachers on school improvement processes to promote an equitable education for all students. I serve as a coach and/or consultant, depending on the needs of the school or district. As a reading specialist, I support schools in literacy-specific, evidence-based practices. I have coached principals, instructional coaches, professional learning communities and individual teachers in literacy instruction. I assist/coach schools in leadership team development, mission/vision processes, PLC development, and evidence-based practice implementation and equity. I support districts and schools to find their areas of strength and elements of concern through a needs assessment process. I coach school staff to analyze their specific data to discover what is working well and discover areas of need. When leadership teams have narrowed their focus to a specific area of need, I assist the staff in choosing the EBP to implement. If the EBP is in literacy, I support the school as a reading specialist to create the implementation and training plan for the EBP. If their area of need is in a different content area, I coordinate and collaborate with other specialists on my team.

The students’, staff’s and school’s needs drive my schedule. At the beginning of a partnership with a school, I collaborate with school leaders to create or refine school leadership teams to focus on school improvement processes. After the school conducts the needs assessment and selects an EBP, I assist the school in the EBP implementation. Implementation planning includes training for staff, a schedule for improvement cycle monitoring, and creating fidelity measures to assure successful implementation. I attend and support the principal and staff in leadership team meetings, PLCs, and individual classrooms. I also collaborate and learn with my RCE and MDE colleagues in professional development on a regular basis.”