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Meet Lisa Finegan of ICEF Public Schools and ICEF Rugby in South Los Angeles

Today, we’d like to introduce you to Lisa Finegan of ICEF Rugby and ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Lisa. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
As a proud Irish woman living and working in Los Angeles, I am delighted to share my journey with you so far. From growing up in Ireland, to moving to London for university and having the phenomenal experience of working all over the world in Australia, Guernsey and the East Coast of America, I am now settled on the west coast, in the city of Los Angeles that I call home. I’m deeply passionate about sport and education and am excited to share my professional responsibilities as part of ICEF Public Schools and my coaching duties with ICEF Rugby, a world renowned inner-city rugby program. I am proud to be able to give back through coaching and was recently nominated for the World Rugby Seven Series DHL Coaching Award. I accepted the award as the only winner in the United States and was one of ten overall global winners this year. There have been multiple documentaries made on the ICEF Rugby program too. The premier of Red, White, Black and Blue Odyssey was featured on Netflix, while the sequel premiered at the Pan African Film Festival this year. My journey was celebrated in the sequel where stories of our students and their experiences are documented in Japan, Brazil and Fiji. Finally, the excitement I have for playing is still a massive part of my life and having played in four countries I was honored to represent Team USA at the 2019 Touch World Cup in Malaysia. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to share my background with you which I hope gives you a better understanding of who I am and why I decided to journey down the path I am currently on. I hope you enjoy it!

Growing up in Ireland, I received an incredibly well-rounded education in an All-Girls Catholic School whose mission was to provide the highest quality education and ethos that promoted Christian values and strong leadership. In addition to developing academic skills, I was exposed to experiences that nurtured aptitude in critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork through the arts, music and sports. These added depth to my personal growth and ultimately has had a very positive impact on my life. As a teenager, I studied in France and the experience afforded me the opportunity to see through a very different educational and cultural lens as an overseas student. In addition to this, I played nationally in multiple sports and developed a competitive edge that still stands with me today. 

At eighteen, I decided to move to London for my third level education. I was determined to study something I was deeply passionate about which included sport and education. As an undergrad, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science Honors in Sport and Exercise Science at St Mary’s University and then went on to pursue a Postgraduate degree in teaching and Masters in Education at Brunel University. I loved life in London and had a drive to continue my career in something that I could make a positive impact in.

My first teaching position was as Head of Department in an academically selective Grammar school in Guernsey, a channel island north west of France and about a two hour flight from London. One of the first articles I read was that the school’s performance was placed within the top 1.5% of all secondary schools in the United Kingdom. I remember thinking that the extremely impressive statistics clearly highlighted the academic excellence that I was looking to be a part of. I had the most incredible year, teaching and playing competitive rugby on the island. The community welcomed me so well and it is a place that will remain fondly in my heart for a long time.

After a year, I decided to return to London as I was offered a position in an Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ school at Harris Girls’ Academy. The most recent report at the time outlined the excellence in achievement of pupils and quality of teaching and leadership. This was a stand out for me and I jumped at the opportunity. After careful research, I genuinely realized the need for that excellence. The academy served a disadvantaged area and the proportion of students known to be eligible for free school meals was more than twice the national average. Around 85% of students were from minority-ethnic groups, with the largest groups having Black Caribbean or Black African heritages. My experience working in an organization like this was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. The relentless pursuit of excellence by leaders and that drive to have the highest aspirations for every student still stays with me today.

The demographics of both schools I taught at was completely different, however the expectations remained the same. That is what I believed to be the secret sauce. Both the experience of teaching in such diverse educational settings equipped me with the skills I believed that are both necessary and incredibly important.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Most certainly, there have been numerous challenges along the way, most notably with accepting my position here in Los Angeles. A favorite quote of mine explains those challenges well – “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it is the one most adaptable to change”. And, most definitely has been true for me. The visa process was a lengthy one. I applied for one of the toughest visas – the P1 – which is one that grants immigration to an athlete of extraordinary ability to compete in the United States for three years. I had to work closely with one of the top sport and entertainment lawyers in the states. It was originally denied due to an administrative error, but finally was extended for a total of five years! I am currently renewing it and hope to stay here for the future. 

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about ICEF Public Schools and ICEF Rugby – what should we know?
Fast forward to my position in Los Angeles today, those core values, mission statements and visions from my own educational experience are still equally as important now as back then. I have a dream job on an Academic Team at ICEF Public Schools that oversees teaching and learning in an independent consortium of charter schools in South Los Angeles. In addition to my main role, I coach high school girls rugby with a world-renowned rugby program called ICEF Rugby. The program is a character development and character building program that uses rugby as a vehicle to develop those skills. 

ICEF Public Schools comprises seven charter schools including four elementary, two middle and one high school. The mission of ICEF Public Schools is to prepare all students to attend and compete at the top 100 colleges and universities in the nation. The organization serves a predominately African American demographic that is noticeably underserved and is affected by gang crime and homelessness. In addition to the existing challenges, the area is a largely low income and as a result has poor health data. Readily available fast food chains and liquor stores makes it convenient for low income families to avail of. Recent statistics show that kids in poor communities have an obesity rate that is nearly 2x higher than kids from affluent communities. In addition, poor students were 5x more likely to drop out of high school than students from high-income families. Black communities often suffer far more from stress, anxiety and depression, while black male students are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended from school and have higher rates of juvenile incarceration. It is a crisis in plain sight.

However, at ICEF, we celebrate and support innovative and inclusive approaches to education. We serve a community where there is an overwhelming need for committed and inspiring educators. I am incredibly proud to serve the community as part of a motivated and dedicated leadership team who continue to do such great work to improve the educational outcomes of our students. So, I would have to say that is what I am most proud of. I get incredible satisfaction from providing outstanding educational and sporting experiences to students in a massively underserved area; choosing to be a positive leader and make a positive impact in a place that needs it most.

Additionally, ICEF Rugby aligns with the mission of ICEF Public School’s mission is multifaceted in it’s offerings. The program offers girls and boys high school rugby in a highly competitive Southern California league. The students that we recruit are normally brave and willing to try a non traditional sport. We take a high school girls and boys team overseas as part of our annual international tour. In the last five years, I have travelled to Brazil, Fiji, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Tanzania, Africa. Over the past eighteen years, the program has travelled to New Zealand, France, England among many others. This portion of the program offers educational and cultural enrichment opportunities for students and has a profoundly positive impact on them. In addition, we offer a six week summer enrichment at University of Santa Barbara and an eight week high school coaching program where students take on the responsibility of coaching elementary and middle school students – both flag and tackle rugby. Certainly, it is by far one of the most enjoyable parts of the year for me. It is an absolute joy to support students develop key skills such as time management, decision making and conflict resolution. Most importantly, you see students blossom into incredible young leaders. That’s the best part.

Most recently, our featured documentary Red, White, Black and Blue Odyssey premiered on Netflix last year, while the sequel Another Red, White, Black and Blue Odyssey premiered at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles this year. We had a screening and a Q&A after. We received incredibly positive reviews and had an engaging discussion after with the audience. Undoubtedly, it is incredibly rewarding to do the work that we do. And, long may it continue!

What are you most proud of? What sets you apart from others?
Educationally, I genuinely believe that the work that we do is incredibly important and is most needed in the South Los Angeles community. Our enthusiastic, passionate and hardworking team of educators are essential to the work we do and make an incredibly positive impact every year. In relation to the opportunities that ICEF Rugby provides, it is equally as important. Students need enrichment opportunities to develop themselves as young leaders and well rounded individuals who are skilled, capable and knowledgeable in different areas.

What advice do you have for anyone getting into your field of work?
In terms of offering advice for someone looking to commit themselves to inner city work, I can offer a few suggestions. Firstly, it’s important to understand the value of the work that’s been done and to know the impact it makes to so many. I always reflect back to the reasons why I do the work I do and I always remember the remarkable progress we have made and look forward to the work that has to be done.

I would highly recommend anyone who is passionate about teaching and making a positive impact to look into getting a California teaching credential and applying to teach at one of our ICEF schools. We are always looking to recruit top educators! Also, anyone looking to get into coaching should register as a coach with USA Rugby and complete the necessary coaching certifications. 

Certainly, the COVID-19 has reinforced the critical nature of teachers and the work they do. Paired with that, the recent ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign also strengthens the funding we receive to carry out the work we do. I am optimistic that there is a shift happening and I am also hopeful that the great work will continue and we will see that positive impact for years to come.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Resilience has been the most important aspect in my success. For me, resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. It is having a toughness to face and overcome any challenge you are faced with.

Throughout my experiences, it has always been so important to be mentally strong. Any challenge you are faced with, it is important to identify the problem and the solution. Working through the problem is the biggest challenge, while the solution is the part you strive for.

I encourage you to donate to ICEF Rugby at Click ‘Donate’, then designate ‘Rugby’ in the drop down box, or send a check made out to “ICEF Public Schools’. Address: Lisa Finegan, 3855 W. Slauson Ave, Los Angeles, CA, 90043. Donations are tax deductible. 

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