CHARLOTTESVILLE — It took 10-hour days of intensive learning during the summer and traveling to Indianapolis on weekends during the school year.
But after two years of hard work, Jessica Neill graduated with her Masters of Business Administration in educational leadership from the University of Indianapolis — and she did it with the help of a scholarship officials say goes to only the state’s most promising educators.
Neill, an instructional coach at Eastern Hancock Elementary School, bears a mark of distinction — she’s the only educator in Hancock County to have received the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, a $50,000 national award for leadership development.
The Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellowship aims to prepare leaders in education, and Neill, now in her 18th year as an educator, said she hopes the training will allow Eastern Hancock to use her leadership skills to its benefit.
Elementary school principal Amanda Pyle and then-superintendent Randy Harris nominated Neill for the award two years ago, and after she went through an application and interview process, she took classes during the summer months and on weekends during the last school year in order to earn her master’s degree.
“They were really looking for people who think outside of the box and see education differently,” Pyle said. “We decided she was a good fit.”
Neill graduated Aug. 19 after completing a yearlong project aimed at improving communication between teachers and struggling students in the elementary school.
Neill surveyed parents and students, and she discovered some elementary students felt disconnected from their teachers.
Neill challenged teachers to choose one student in their class who perhaps didn’t always finish their homework on time, or who might have shown some behavior problems, and commit to making a connection with the student and their family. Some teachers called home about positive things; others took the time to write a student a postcard and let them know they cared, Neill said.
She guided teachers on ways to create healthy, positive relationships and collected data at the beginning, middle and end of the school year to measure the students’ progress with increased one-on-one interaction.
Tracking data, part of Neill’s job as an instructional coach, came easily to the educator, said Eastern Hancock superintendent Vicki McGuire.
“Jessica is an extremely hard worker and very dedicated,” McGuire said. “She always puts kids first.”
Neill’s data, which tracked both behavioral and academic achievement, showed more than half of students involved in the project made their growth goals.
“I think it made teachers realize that giving a little bit extra made a big difference,” she said. “They focused on being intentional about reaching out to them in a positive way.”
Pyle said sometimes teachers feel bogged down with the needs of the entire class and feel guilty when they spend extra time on one student, but this project showed them the effect such attention can have on a student’s performance.