Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen speaks about updates on the state department of education's priorities going into a year with a governor's race during an editorial board meeting at the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Tennessee is trying to help principals in rural school districts network and attend training with other educators.

Earlier this week, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced the inaugural class of the Tennessee Rural Principals Network, which is a part of Gov. Bill Haslam's Transforming School Leadership Initiative.

More than 50 principals from across the state were selected. They will receive funding to attend at least five events during the 2018-19 school year designed to help address challenges that are unique to rural leadership.

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Executive Director Jared Bigham speaks before a series of panel discussions during a celebration for Chattanooga 2.0's second year in the Tennessee Room at the University Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Local principals

Local principals selected for the Tennessee Rural Principals Network:

  • William Childers, Griffith Elementary School in Sequatchie County
  • Tamra Lanning, Polk Innovative Learning Academy in Polk County
  • Kimberly Shurett, Jasper Elementary in Marion County

Principals in rural school districts far from other systems often are unable to take advantage of leadership development or networking opportunities because of the cost of registration and travel or the time and distance it takes to get somewhere.

"We must ensure that every school, no matter where it is located in Tennessee, is led by a principal who is supported and developed to his or her fullest potential and able to guide our teachers and students to success," McQueen said in a statement. "The Tennessee Rural Principals Network is an innovative approach to meet the unique needs of school leaders in our rural communities and allow them to grow professionally and learn from one another to ultimately benefit our students."

A new study released earlier this year by the Wallace Foundation argued that one of the most effective ways to improve schools was to coach and improve principals. Through the $24 million Principal Supervisor Initiative, the foundation studied changes made between 2014 and 2017 at six urban districts in California, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio.

According to the foundation, research shows administrators are second in importance only to teachers when it comes to how they affect student performance. But any educator also knows that leaders have a large impact on the faculty, staff and culture within a school.

Jared Bigham, executive director of Chattanooga 2.0, serves as a board member for the Tennessee Rural Education Association and the National Rural Education Policy Committee.

As a former principal in a rural school district, Bigham said support for lead administrators is vital.

"A rural principal wears multiple hats in their schools, which means their interaction and impact on faculty is even more pronounced, so a talented principal can attract, retain and foster great teachers and, in turn, a poor principal can cause a mass exodus of teachers pretty quick," Bigham said.

In some small school districts, there might only be a handful of principals and not a lot of staff or instructional coaches in the central office to support them and their teachers.

"Because rural schools have less in terms of resources and administrative staff, the principal is often the instructional coach in the building and in charge of professional development," Bigham added.

Tamra Lanning, one of the principals selected for the first cohort of the Tennessee Rural Principals Network, is a second-year principal in Polk County. She works alongside one other faculty member running Polk County's virtual school, the Polk Innovative Learning Academy.

Lanning said she was excited for the opportunity to connect with educators in other situations across the state.

"I've been trying to network with other principals in other districts," Lanning said. She's especially interested in other virtual school efforts.

"As we grow the school we would like to be able to work with other districts and see how we can expand virtual education. There's lots of things we could do with it," she said.

Lanning added that the ability to attend workshops and conferences is vital for principals' success and often out of reach for rural districts.

"Not all rural districts can pay for their leaders to go to trainings; it can be a burden on the district," she said. "But professional development is important. It keeps principals up to date on best practices that we can bring back to our teachers."

The state has also pledged to provide scholarships for up to 200 more rural principals to attend state-provided training opportunities.

The Transforming School Leadership Initiative, announced by Haslam in March 2018, allocates state and private funding to improve leadership pipelines and help retain leaders in some of the state's lowest-performing schools, often located in urban centers and outlying rural districts.

Haslam dedicated more than $3.5 million in this year's budget toward the initiatives and the Ayers Foundation, Scarlett Family Foundation and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education have invested a combined $600,000 in the efforts, as well.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.