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First North Dakota teacher named Albert Einstein Fellow from West Fargo Schools, but denied leave

Michelle Strand will have input on educational policies and programs at the national level.

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WEST FARGO — West Fargo High School teacher Michelle Strand will be spending 11 months in Washington, D.C., where she will have the chance to help influence education policy for the nation as the first North Dakota teacher to be named an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow.

However, Strand, who has taught physics and AP physics at the school for 12 years, may not be able to return to the high school after her fellowship is over. Her request for an unpaid leave of absence was denied by the district.

District officials have not granted any long-term leave of absences this year due to the current teacher shortage.

West Fargo Public Schools Spokeswoman Heather Leas said policy prevents the district to speaking about a specific teacher's leave request, but she spoke to the district's overall situation.

"Leave requests were handled differently this year. Due to the severe labor shortage that we (along with so many employers) have experienced, (West Fargo Public Schools) has not approved any extended leave requests this year based on the difficulty we were already experiencing in filling continuing contracts," Leas said.

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The Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program provides the opportunity for K–12 STEM educators from around the U.S. to apply their classroom knowledge and experiences while serving 11 months in a federal agency or U.S. congressional office in Washington, D.C., engaged in the national STEM education arena.

Federal agencies and U.S. congressional offices benefit from fellows’ real-world experiences as teachers. In return, Einstein fellows gain an understanding of the role of the federal government in the U.S. education system, knowledge of resources available to students and educators and broader perspectives on national education issues that can be applied to the classroom or to leadership positions in their districts or elsewhere.

Only 15 teachers are named Einstein fellows each year. The program assigns 10 fellows to a federal agency, and five will be assigned to a U.S. Congressional office.

Strand will serve as one of the five in congressional offices, where she will have the chance to listen in on committee meetings, join discussions on policy and report back to a congressman or congresswoman about topics regarding education. She will be responsible for getting information, doing research and meeting with national influences.

"We are the voice in the office for education," Strand said. "It gets more exciting every step of the process."

The program is managed by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists in collaboration with the sponsoring agencies and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education. Sponsoring agencies for this year’s fellowship include the Department of Energy, Library of Congress, Department of Defense, U.S. Geological Survey, National Science Foundation, Department of Homeland Security and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The program has been operating for 32 years, yet Strand's nomination is the first time an educator from North Dakota has received the fellowship.

Strand received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2016, another elite recognition of her work as a science teacher. Since then, she often receives emails about open fellowships, awards and programs that she may be eligible for.

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"Normally, I delete those emails. For whatever reason, this one, I didn't delete it." Strand said. "I spent about a month going back to that email and reading it again and again."

Strand discussed applying with her colleagues at West Fargo High School and her family, all of whom were supportive of her applying for the fellowship, including Principal Jennifer Fremstad and her fellow science department teachers, who were willing to help cover back at the school where they could.

After applying and being named a semifinalist for the fellowship this spring, Strand was notified of her award, which will officially begin Aug. 15 and run through July 14, 2023.

Strand recently returned from a trip to Capitol Hill, where she met congressional representatives and toured the facilities.

"It was very surreal last week actually being in the House, being in their cafeteria, and realizing this is where I am going to spend the next year," Strand said.

As of press time, Strand has not found which office she will be assigned to. However, she does know which educational topics she would like to address during her time in Washington.

"I am really concerned about teacher burnout and teacher retention," she said. "I think it's already starting to become a real problem, and it's going to be the biggest crisis public education has seen, if things don't change."

The topic of teacher retention hits close to Strand's heart after the denial of a leave of absence, which she said is a standard year of unpaid leave available to teachers.

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"My department wants me back, but I'm still (pondering) do I want to go back to a place that doesn't support a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this," Strand said.

The district has three policies that allow for extended leave: for child care, health and a long-term professional leave of absence for educational training and other professional growth experience. According to policy, the leave is granted at the sole discretion of the superintendent.

The criteria for granting such a leave includes the teacher's application, and the teacher or staff member must have a minimum of three consecutive years of experience within the district.

Professional staff members applying for the first time for long-term professional leave shall be given priority over those professional staff members requesting either an extension of a granted leave or an additional leave after having previously been granted a long-term leave.

In order for the superintendent to approve a leave, a suitable replacement as determined by the superintendent must be available. The leave is available for not less than one semester and up to two years.

Since she was not granted a leave of absence, Strand chose not to renew her teaching contract after June 30. While she may return to West Fargo and reapply for a teaching position, Strand will leave the door open for now.

"I'm going to put all my effort into enjoying this opportunity, and we'll see what happens," she said.

Readers can reach West Fargo editor Wendy Reuer at wreuer@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5530 . Follow her on Twitter @ForumWendy .

Related Topics: WEST FARGO
As the West Fargo editor, Wendy Reuer covers all things West Fargo for The Forum and oversees the production of the weekly Pioneer.
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