SEL Fellows Academy: Inaugural Cohort

Bringing Together Education Leaders to Accelerate SEL Nationwide

The urgency for social and emotional learning (SEL) has never been greater as educators navigate complex challenges that emerged from this unprecedented year.

To accelerate SEL in school communities nationwide, CASEL and the Allstate Foundation proudly present the SEL Fellows Academy. Our first-of-its-kind virtual leadership academy offers an opportunity to grow and strengthen SEL practices in community with others across the country.

We welcome 31 school district and regional leaders from 17 states and that collectively serve more than 1.6 million students to the inaugural 2021 Allstate Foundation Cohort.

2022-2023 Application

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Meet the Inaugural Cohort

Learn more about the 31 members of the inaugural cohort.

Read our press release.

Questions can be directed to

In partnership with our SEL Fellows, we can bring social and emotional learning to more communities nationwide so all young people receive the education they deserve.”

What is the SEL Fellows Academy?

For over a decade, CASEL has been in research-practice partnerships with large, urban school districts nationwide to study and scale high-quality SEL. The 12-month, virtual SEL Fellows Academy builds on this success to offer a unique opportunity for rural, suburban, and urban communities to strengthen their SEL expertise in community with one another. Our model combines professional learning with a community of practice to advance SEL toward equity and excellence in all schools. Annually, a cohort of up to 50 SEL leaders will be selected to participate and deepen their SEL practice at a personal, interpersonal, and institutional level.

What do we look for in an SEL Fellow?

The SEL Fellows Academy is for those employed by a school district or regional office of education in the United States. SEL Fellows are passionate about SEL, dedicated to their own discovery and development, and responsible for leading SEL in their community.

What are the key components?

Over the 12 months, the SEL Fellows Academy engages participants through six half-day virtual sessions with the full group and five facilitated peer inquiry group sessions with smaller teams. SEL Fellows will conclude the engagement with an action plan that will inform and guide SEL efforts for the school district or community going forward.

In addition, each participant is paired with another as a Journey Partner through the duration of the engagement. The content discussed in these sessions is reinforced through a digital community platform where the cohort can connect with each other and individual touchpoints with CASEL experts and mentors.

Build capacity for SEL leadership

Engage in leadership practices and coaching strategies and apply them to your unique context to address critical problems of practice.

Create an SEL action plan

Develop an implementation plan with localized action strategies and create a capstone project on SEL to help sustain your work.

Join a community of practice

Foster long-term commitment and sustainability through regular opportunities to learn from a growing network of peers. Fellows will be lifelong members.

Influence nationwide SEL adoption

Create, test, and refine practical approaches for SEL to address challenging issues. Lessons learned will be gathered and shared broadly with educators nationwide.

Meet the Inaugural Allstate Foundation Cohort of SEL Fellows

Lesley Backofen,
Crystal Lake Elementary District 47 (IL)

My background in social and emotional learning extends to after school programs and camp settings 30 years ago. As an educator, my experience as a Special Education Teacher and an Interventionist focused on developing relationships with students and families to support the whole child.

Larissa Bennett,
School District of Manatee County (FL)

Soon after starting my teaching career, I realized my passion was not in teaching academics but helping students realize their potential. I became a school counselor to do just that and now I continue this work by helping our teachers learn about the importance of SEL in our schools as our district’s School Climate Coordinator.

David Blahowicz,
Greece Central School District (NY)

I have spent 16 years in the district as a Special Education Teacher, Interventionist, and Teacher Leader. During my tenure, I have worked to develop and implement a 5-year plan for SEL, RtI, Professional Learning, as well as facilitated a committee to write the Greece CSD’s Strategic Plan.

Melissa Bostwick,
Alpine School District (UT)

I am K-12 Director of Social and Emotional Well-being. I completed undergrad at University of Connecticut, a Master’s degree in School Psychology from Bucknell University and second Master’s in Educational Leadership from Brigham Young University.

Travis Bracht,
Affton School District (MO)

I am the superintendent of the Affton School District in St. Louis. In 2016, I identified SEL as one of three strategic plan focus areas along with academic excellence and creative problem solving. My career began in 1998 as a high school science teacher and has included various school and district-level administrative positions.

Matt Cretsinger,
Marshalltown Community School District (IA)

I have been the Director of Special Services since 2012. I began my educational career as a School Psychologist before moving into educational leadership roles. Prior to my career in education, I served as a clinician for a mental health center, Program Director for a psychiatric medical institute for children.

Amanda Deeter,
Montgomery County Educational Service Center (OH)

I am a Social Emotional Learning Specialist at Montgomery County Educational Service Center in Dayton. I am also a Professional Clinical Counselor that specializes with children and adolescents. Currently I provide professional development on a range of topics related to creating Trauma Informed/SEL Integrated learning environments, coaches administrators/staff on integrating SEL/TI practices and curriculum development.

Stacey Dupre,
East Baton Rouge Parish School System (LA)

I supervise the department/programs under the Division of Student Support which includes: Child Welfare and Attendance, School Counselors, Health Centers in Schools/School Nurses, ICARE, MTSS/SEL, Social Workers, 504, and Truancy Assessment Service Center. I hold a Bachelor of General Studies, Master of Education, and Education Specialist from Louisiana State University and A&M College. I am a National Certified Counselor and a National Certified School Counselor.

Patrick Farrell,
Charlottesville City Schools (VA)

I am currently the Intervention and Support Supervisor for Charlottesville City Schools. I have over 20 years experience as a special education teacher and administrator as well as division leadership in mental wellness, MTSS, PBIS, and federal programs. I am married with two sons and a very opinionated dog.

Rachelle Finck,
Taylor Independent School District (TX)

I just started a position with Taylor ISD after serving as Coordinator for Social and Emotional Learning in the Round Rock Independent School District. In the last five years, I have coordinated a district-wide initiative on integrating social and emotional learning best practices across 56 schools and worked to expand understanding of social & emotional learning, restorative practices, and integrating best practices for whole-child education.

Hector Garcia,
Community Consolidated School District 181 (IL)

I am Superintendent of Community Consolidated School District 181, serving grades PreK-8, outside of Chicago. During my more than 27 years of work in public education, I have been a District administrator, principal, and history teacher. I have led multiple curricular improvements and professional development initiatives across the spectrum of socio-economic schools and have been a part of some of America’s highest performing schools.

Dau Jok,
Des Moines Public Schools (IA)

I am a former Division I basketball captain, non-profit director, and company commander in the United States Reserve. I currently serve as the SEL Coordinator for Des Moines (IA) Public Schools and hold a bachelors degree in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, Masters of Science in Global Leadership from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a PhD in Education from Drake University. I seek to humanize my studies and life experiences to enhance the spaces I occupy.

Rena Keith,
Johnston County Public Schools (NC)

I am a Licensed Professional School Counselor serving Johnston County Public Schools in Smithfield, North Carolina. As a Social and Emotional Learning Specialist, my professional experiences include community mental health, special education, and school counseling. My passion is supporting and encouraging others through authentic relationships. I believe that seeing, hearing, and valuing individuals ensures the greatness as a collective whole.

Dr. Tricia Kling,
Downey Unified School District (CA)

A Californian educator, I have served as a teacher, counselor, adjunct professor, school psychologist, consultant and SEL coordinator for over 25 years. I received my doctorate in Educational Leadership with a concentration in Educational Psychology through USC. I am passionate about leveraging SEL to address the needs of the whole child. I strive to build uplifting relationships that efficaciously espouse social emotional learning and create thriving cultures.

Jeanette Koh,
Walnut Valley Unified School District (CA)

I have experience leading a school as a principal, leading colleagues as a staff developer, and leading educational services with district-wide initiatives as Administrative Director in Educational Services. In all those capacities, I have been in my element; as Sir Ken Robinson described, the element is the point at which natural talent meets personal passion. I feel grateful that my 29 years in education have afforded me to be in my element, where I love what I do because supporting others and building them up brings me joy.

James Magee,
South Washington County Schools (MN)

Bio to come

Sara Lein,
West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area Schools (MN)

I have been an educator for over 30 years, working in schools in southern California, North Dakota, and Minnesota. I am currently the Director of Special Services in an inner tier suburb of St. Paul/ Minneapolis. I am also the founding director of a nonprofit organization supporting a school in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. I lead my district’s social and emotional learning efforts and oversees special education services.

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Connie McCarley,
Walnut Creek School District (CA)

I am the Assistant Director of Educational Support Services for the Walnut Creek School District. Previously, I served as principal at three different schools including as founding principal of Tice Creek School, a K-8 public opt-in Project Based Learning School, where SEL was embedded as a critical component to the learning program. I am proud to lead the WCSD in the implementation of SEL across all schools and all settings.

Jorge Melgoza,
Mount Diablo Unified School District (CA)

I am an educational leader who has worked in the field of education for over 30 years and noticed that a majority of administrators rarely receive support understanding and analyzing the harmful effects of institutional racism. Over the years I have developed a framework designed specifically for administrators to develop the skills, mindset and dispositions necessary to interrupt the impact of institutional racism and become the bold and courageous leaders we need today.

Kristine Morris,
Union Elementary School District #62 (AZ)

I have spent over 25 years serving students and families in public schools throughout the Valley. I am a champion for all children, with experience as a teacher, principal, county level leader, district administrator, and Superintendent of Union Elementary School District #62. My leadership, communication, collaboration, and student-centered beliefs ensures Union ESD inspires hope and empowers all children to courageously pursue their goals and dreams.

Catherine Murray, Batavia Public School District 101 (IL)

I started my educational career as a school social worker in 2012 in the western suburbs of Chicago, and soon after found my passion for SEL and committed to building social emotional skills beyond my caseload. Currently an Assistant Director of Student Services in Batavia, Illinois, I am thrilled to join a community of leaders focused on comprehensive SEL implementation for students, staff and adults to learn and grow

Mai Nguyen,
Buffalo Public Schools

I have diverse experience as a K-12 Educator, having taught every grade, K-12, as a NYS Certified Health and Physical Education Teacher in rural, urban, and suburban settings at private, public, and charter schools. I transitioned into Educational Leadership, first serving as the Carol M. White PEP Grant Director for the Pembroke/Alexander CSD and then into my current role as the Director of Social, Emotional and Wellness for the Buffalo Public Schools .

Kris Norelius,
Olympia School District (WA)

I am an SEL Instructional Coach for the Olympia School District in Olympia, Washington, where my husband and I enjoy the beauty and outdoor opportunities of the Pacific Northwest. I am a former social worker and school counselor. One of my greatest joys is collaborating with educators as they develop tools to elevate social emotional learning to its rightful place in the educational setting.

Mary Reed,
Sacramento County Office of Education (CA)

I am a licensed clinical social worker and former classroom teacher, currently working in school-based mental health and wellness. I have worked at the school and district level to train and coach the implementation of various multi-tiered systems of support, My passion lies in supporting educators in realizing and embracing their power in creating communities of belonging within their schools and classrooms, and ensuring that ALL students feel safe, welcome, and included in their school communities.

Martina Rush,
Marion County School District (SC)

This fall will mark the beginning of my 29th year as an educator. After more than two decades serving students, I will take the lead as Marion County School District’s Director of Student Services in July 2021. As a veteran educator, I plan to use my experience to help students look to school as a place where they can be educated, prepared and inspired in a safe, caring and equitable environment.

Melissa Spadin,
San Diego County Office of Education (CA)

I am the Director, System of Supports at the San Diego County Office of Education where I support local education agencies in LCAP development, Differentiated Assistance, MTSS, SEL implementation, and measurement. I have worked on NAEP, state assessments, and served on the National Task Force for Assessment Education and the CCSSO FAST SCASS. I began my career in education as a high school English and Theatre teacher, forensics coach, and Theatre Director.

Daniel Shapiro,
Broward County Public Schools (FL)

I have served for 25 years as a teacher, school counselor, mentor, and district leader. I received the National Board Teacher Certification in early adolescence/ English language arts, a master’s degree in school counseling, and received a doctoral degree in education with a specialization in instructional leadership. I also received the Florida Governor’s Shine Award for inspirational teaching and was named the Broward County Public Schools Teacher of the Year in 2014 and the 2015 Florida School Counselor Association (FSCA) Elementary School Counselor of the Year.

Reyna Texler,
North Rockland Central School District (NY)

I currently serve as an SEL Teacher and SEL Lead for the North Rockland School District. With over 25 years of teaching experience, I am an alum of the Transformative Educational Leadership Program (TEL), a Mindfulness Coach & Yoga Instructor for children, & founder of Ruby Sneakers Consulting. I am a recipient of the 2021 Marvin Mauer Award from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence & facilitate interactive workshops for families and educators both locally and nationally.

Katie Willard,
Waltham Public Schools (MA)

I currently serve as the Assistant Director of School Counseling PK-12 for the Waltham Public Schools, and I have a wide variety of clinical experience. In my role as Assistant Director of School Counseling PK-12, I am responsible for the creation and implementation of a District-Wide SEL Learning Plan. Since beginning the role, I have worked to foster a collaborative adult learning environment that promotes social-emotional wellness, to provide adults with professional development in the area, to identify an evidence-based approach to SEL, and has improved community partnerships.

Sarah Wood,
Encinitas Union School District (CA)

I created and currently implement an explicit SEL program, T.R.A.C., in the Encinitas Union School District in Encinitas, CA. I am a former classroom teacher and parenting educator. I have a BA in Anthropology from UCSD, and am completing my MA in SEL from National University. I live in Encinitas with my husband, 4 sons, and 2 dogs.

Mary T. Schmitz,
Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools (MN)

I am an experienced Educational Leader with a demonstrated history of integrating best practices in the fields of Mental Wellness, Mindfulness and Transformative Social and Emotional Learning. Thirty years serving Students, Educators & Communities, I resolve to: Show Up in authentic presence; Engage in connected relationships; and Lean In with compassion remains. “Impact should be measured by sustainable community, where each is seen, taught to see & engaged in doing both.”

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