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Jessica Taylor

Director of Student Services, Avonworth School District 

Statement of Research Interest/Problem of Practice:
Ms. Taylor's research interests include equitable student discipline practices, and positive, effective mental health supports for students at all levels. Her Problem of Practice focuses on initiating proactive mental health practices at primary /elementary grades, through a multi-pronged approach and community partnerships.

Ms. Jessica Taylor's education includes Summa Cum Laude degrees in special education, transition planning, and educational leadership from Boston University, Johns Hopkins University, and Duquesne University. A twenty-year educator, Taylor currently serves as the Director of Student Services at the Avonworth School District. Before joining the central administration at Avonworth seven years ago, Ms. Taylor taught special education across all levels in Prince George's County (MD) and in charter and district settings in Pittsburgh.

Living in Romania, Taylor provided essential leadership to establish Scoala Raza de Soare and Casa Darius, the first educational/therapeutic programs for orphaned and abandoned children with special needs in Arad, Romania and delivered comprehensive support to the all-Romanian teaching and administrative staff. One of her proudest accomplishments remains the success of these programs, which are now EU and USAID demonstration sites and sustained entirely by national staff.

Currently, Taylor oversees Avonworth's programs in special education, gifted services, school counseling, school health, English as a Second Language, Student Assistance, alternative education, and services for homeless students. She passionately advocates for vulnerable children and families, frequently partnering with Children, Youth, & Families, KidsVoice, county and regional agencies and neighboring districts to better serve students. Under her leadership, Avonworth has strengthened special education programs to maximize inclusion of students with exceptionalities, organized Student Assistance Programs in all district buildings, and initiated school-based mental health partnerships with Mercy Behavioral Health. As the non-discrimination officer and employee assistance coordinator she provides district-level leadership for staff selection and professional development, student discipline matters, state reporting, federal compliance, and safety/emergency preparation and response. Avonworth recently received prestigious honors, including designations for Schools to Watch, the League of Innovative Schools, and P21 Exemplar Schools. Along with the administrative team and key stakeholders, Ms. Taylor engages in strategic planning and human-centered design processes to advance district emphases on creativity, personalized learning, and interdisciplinary, project-based curricula. She loves the engagement that makes Avonworth such a special place built on amazing families, community support, and the freedom to take risks to transform schools in the service of students.

Mentored by: Dr. Thomas Ralston
Superintendent, Avonworth School District

A dedicated educational leader for over 25 years, Dr. Ralston graduated from West Liberty State in 1989 with certification in secondary social studies and science, and taught middle and high school science in Hancock County, West Virginia. He developed a strong foundation in developmentally appropriate teaching and learning by helping transform the junior high to a developmentally responsive middle school.

Dr. Ralston received his Master's in Administration and Educational Leadership from West Virginia University in 1996 and was named principal of Oak Glen Middle School in Hancock County, WV. Under his leadership, Oak Glen was designated a West Virginia School of Excellence. He served as middle school principal in the South Side Beaver School District for over eight years and was instrumental in establishing a foreign exchange program with middle schools in Japan and the Czech Republic. In 2005 he was named principal of Avonworth Middle School. Under his leadership, AMS was designated a Don Eichhorn Middle School to Watch three times and the district developed interdisciplinary and project-based learning models.

Dr. Ralston completed his Letter of Eligibility at Westminster College in 2011 and became Avonworth's Superintendent in 2012. He serves in that role with enthusiasm, vision, and integrity, leading the fast-growing district to increased influence and renown both locally and nationally. Under his leadership, Avonworth was named as a School to Watch, a Project 21 Exemplar site, and an invited member of the League of Innovative Schools. Dr. Ralston has negotiated two contracts, overseen the construction and opening of the Primary Center in 2014, fostered countless community partnerships, and spearheaded Maker education throughout the district. He has built and sustained uncommonly positive relationships with the school board, faculty and support staff unions, and has overseen the hire of almost the entire current administrative team.

Dr. Ralston earned his doctorate from Youngstown State in 2014, focusing his research on project-based learning. He was extensively trained in human-centered design techniques at the Luma Institute in Pittsburgh and is affiliated with Leadership Pittsburgh. He serves as President of the Tri-State School Study Council and is a member of the University of Pittsburgh Forum of Western Pennsylvania School Superintendents and the Remake Learning Council. He often partners with the Sprout Fund for grant and professional development opportunities across the region. Dr. Ralston has been an invited speaker at professional conferences and gatherings across the country, including two recent invitations to the White House. During the summer of 2017, Dr. Ralston was invited to travel with a group of educators to Poland to tour key Holocaust sites, guided by a concentration camp survivor and exploring connections with modern day political and ideological challenges.

Visitors to Avonworth often find Dr. Ralston walking around the schools, observing in classrooms, talking comic books with fellow devotees, or even playing guitar with budding student musicians. His energy, passion for instruction, care for students, and keen sense of humor continue undimmed. Dr. Ralston and his wife Michelle make their home in the Avonworth district with their two children, Conner and Callie.