Welcome to our Region 8 Comprehensive Center (CC) spotlight, where we will profile key personnel leading the Region 8 CC. In our first interview, we talk with Co-Directors Kandace Jones and T.J. Horwood about their top priorities and what drew them to this work. Check our website for profiles of other staff members in the months ahead.
Kandace Jones brings 17 years of education experience to the Region 8 CC with a strong focus on equitable education and lifelong learning. From 2009 to 2011, she served as Special Assistant and Acting Chief of Staff in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, coordinating technical assistance (TA) to improve low-performing schools. Her background includes assignments for the District of Columbia Public Schools and the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center and co-founder of Global Elevation, which promotes economic growth in low-income communities through youth leadership development. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Florida A&M University.
T.J. Horwood is a Director with ICF, helping to lead its education consulting practice in partnership with government agencies, school systems, and postsecondary institutions. Over his 16-year career at ICF, his responsibilities have included TA leadership, mixed-methods program evaluation, project management, and staff development. Prior to joining ICF, he was a researcher at Caliber Associates and an Academic Program Coordinator at Kent State University. An Ohio native, he has a master's degree from Kent State University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Mount Union.
Q: How did you get interested in education technical assistance and capacity-building?
Kandace: My journey into this work was not a linear one. After completing my Masters in Business Administration, I began a career with a Fortune 100 company. On the side, I volunteered in schools and served as a mentor to high school girls in a low-performing school. It lit a fire in me to play an active role in transforming the educational experience, particularly for students facing systemic barriers to unlock their greatest potential. I vowed to spend the next phase of my career working on behalf of these students.
After working at the district level and for other education organizations, the opportunity came to join the administration of President Barack Obama at the U.S. Department of Education. It was while serving there that I learned about the power of high-quality technical assistance and capacity-building across federal programs. I became more passionate about supporting systemic change to improve outcomes for students. I am grateful to do the work we do each day to support state education agencies (SEAs), local education agencies (LEAs), and schools.
T.J.: Two memories stand out from childhood that influenced my career. One is that I used to love playing in my yard with toy construction trucks to develop what I thought were elaborate roads with smoothly paved surfaces. And I was obsessed with any paving project going on in our town. I found joy in seeing newly paved pathways to a destination, and I have always equated this to helping smooth out the path for educators so they have information and tools to effect change. Another memory is that I loved being a teacher's assistant even though I never had a strong desire to be a teacher myself. But knowing that our work in TA and capacity-building helps make a difference in education gives me great satisfaction.
I was in graduate school when I first learned of these types of services, and I was hooked. My interest is always piqued when I meet an individual or team that's asking for my advice. Throughout my career at ICF, I've had the opportunity to work with education organizations at all levels and have split my time between capacity-building TA and program evaluation. I love seeing programs and organizations I've worked with thrive in accomplishing their goals.
Q: What education topics are you most passionate about today?
Kandace: I am most passionate about equity in education. It is what drew me into the field, and it is what sustains me in the work. The opportunity gaps in this nation did not come about by chance. The educational system in the United States was intentionally designed to keep certain groups at the bottom and others at the top. Resources and educational opportunities have been unevenly distributed for generations. These disparities are what drive me to engage in this work each day. We have a lot of work to do, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to play a role in building the capacity of educators to improve outcomes for students.
T.J.: I am particularly motivated by the work being done around continuous improvement at all levels of education that improve our communities. I love to see departments in large organizations break down silos and work together or see teachers work with school leaders and school leaders talk to district leaders about common goals. In recent years I have also learned more about social emotional learning and strategies like wraparound services that allow educators to engage families and serve the whole child. I think a lot of my passion comes from wanting to explore the interconnectedness of systems and their influences on student development and community progress.
Q: How does Region 8 CC select initiatives in each state? How long do these initiatives last and how do you evaluate their success?
Kandace: The Region 8 CC team works closely with SEA leadership to assess their needs and understand their priorities. Using the Region 8 needs sensing protocol, our team meets with SEA leaders to inquire about their strategic plan, current goals, and challenges. We work with the SEA to determine where there may be gaps in capacity and align that to the skills of the Region 8 CC TA Specialists. The Region 8 CC team drafts annual service plans (ASPs) that outline the scope, milestones, outputs, outcomes, etc. The ASP is signed by SEA leadership to ensure the plan is responsive to the needs identified.
The current set of Comprehensive Centers began October 1, 2019 and are funded through September 20, 2024. Many initiatives span the full five years of the grant, as the CCs are funded to provide intensive capacity-building support. In that way they are different from other technical assistance centers that are set up mainly to produce resources or advance research.
T.J.: It's also important to note that Region 8 CC services are evaluated by internal evaluators and external evaluators. Our state coordinators track services every month, and internal evaluators collect feedback from clients to inform our practice and continually improve services. We track and report quarterly progress on initiatives, we report against our center's performance objectives annually, and we submit a comprehensive evaluation report annually. By the end of our five-year funding period, we will be able to tell our impact story across all of our initiatives.
Q: What current Region 8 CC activities should more people know about?
Kandace: In addition to the 12 initiatives underway in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, the Region 8 CC team has been focusing on equity in capacity building and technical assistance. We are educating ourselves and planning to use that education to inform the support we provide to state, regional, and local education agencies. As a team, we engage in a book study series that illuminates just how deeply ingrained systemic inequities are in this nation. We began the series with Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi and are currently discussing Caste: The Origin of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. We will continue this series with additional selections to inform our practices.
T.J.: The Region 8 CC team plays a large role in national activities beyond serving the three states in our region. Many Region 8 CC staff participate in work groups organized by ED and the National Comprehensive Center (which coordinates the CC Network) on a variety of topics. We are part of communications and dissemination, annual service planning, and evaluation work groups. We also contribute to work teams on learning literacy; educator workforce; social, emotional, and behavior learning/trauma informed practice; and systemic technical assistance. And of course, we're also learning about ways we can support states as they reopen and focus on summer learning and enrichment programs through the American Rescue Plan Act.
Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has upended a lot of norms in American education. In what ways do you think K-12 education will change in the next five years?
Kandace: I imagine we will have hybrid models of instruction in many districts for some time, as virtual learning continues as an option for some families. While this has created opportunities to engage in new ways, it also creates challenges for school systems to manage, monitor, assess, and evaluate. I believe we will be thinking about capacity-building for dual-model systems – virtual and in-person. While some schools and districts have had dual-model offerings for some time, the nation was thrust into fuller implementation due to the pandemic.
T.J.: I think we will see even more options for ways in which teachers teach and students learn. I've been fascinated by how districts and schools modified their approaches and deployed resources in response to reduced in-person attendance and remote learning. The pandemic placed a renewed emphasis on inequities across our country such as access to broadband. While we knew access was an issue before the pandemic, it escalated when school buildings closed in many communities and students and educators could not access high-speed internet. I am hopeful we can work to address this issue for the greater good in case we face another pandemic in the future.
Q: What else would you like educators in Region 8 to know about you?
Kandace: In addition to education, I am passionate about mental health and mindfulness. I enjoy practicing and teaching meditation and stress relief practices, particularly to those who are deeply engaged in social change efforts. I believe that to sustain ourselves in this work, we must prioritize caring for ourselves. When we do this, we can meet the challenges that arise in this work with ease and grace. This is not easy work, and change does not happen overnight. My daily wellness practices fuel me with the resolve to see this through.
T.J.: I am a native Ohioan and after spending 10 years living and working in Washington, DC, it gives me great joy to work with the Ohio Department of Education and educators throughout the Buckeye State again. But I am also very fond of and have enjoyed working with educators in Indiana and Michigan as well – despite college rivalries in our region. I have spent time in all three state capitals and have been to the northernmost point of our region, Isle Royale. As travel restrictions are lifted, I hope to travel to other parts of these three great states.