George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Schools That Work
Education Equity

Building a Community of Learners—and Citizens

A high-needs school in Rhode Island helps close the achievement gap while preparing students for active citizenship.

From the primary grades through high school graduation, the 630 students of Highlander Charter School in Providence, Rhode Island, build their confidence to speak up and speak out.

Founded in 2000 as the state’s first independent public charter school, Highlander was named after the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a historic institution that has served as a training ground for grassroots activists—including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.—since the earliest days of the civil rights movement.

Closing the achievement gap for the high-needs, predominantly minority student body is a priority here, and an emphasis on student engagement and social activism “teaches students to have a voice and make a difference,” says Head of School Rose Mary Grant.

“Education is the civil rights issue of our own time—especially for children living in poverty or subjected to inferior education,” says Grant. “We want to level the playing field [at Highlander] and provide access to equitable and excellent education [for all our students].”

At the school, teachers provide individualized, differentiated instruction to help each student reach his or her potential. In coursework from kindergarten through high school, students are pushed to understand others’ experiences and points of view and to advocate for their own beliefs.

Equally important is preparing students for active citizenship. Highlander’s students are made to feel connected to and part of a community through opportunities to engage in real-world projects that can lead to civic action, such as testifying about school funding or campaigning for animal rights.

There’s plenty of evidence to show that Highlander’s strategies are working.

Students typically outperform the state average in key disciplines, helping close the achievement gap for students of color, English language learners (ELLs), and students with disabilities. In 2015, for example, students in four groups outperformed their same-group peers across the state in math: ELLs by 110 percent; African American students by 125 percent; students with disabilities by 192 percent; and low-income students by 35 percent.

Building an Inclusive Culture From the Ground Up

Highlander’s inclusive culture is no accident and starts in the classrooms of its earliest students.

One deliberate culture-building strategy is the morning meeting. Every elementary class at the school begins the day with a 15-minute circle time that helps children transition to school and feel “ready to learn.”

Based on the Responsive Classroom model, morning meetings center around peer-to-peer greetings, sharing, a fun activity, and a review of the day’s schedule. During greetings, students choose how to greet their peers—with a handshake, a high five, or a wave—and are invited to talk about what’s on their minds.

“Before any learning can take place, students need to feel safe and feel like they are seen and cared about,” said Valerie Gallagher, a first-grade teacher at the school. “The real impact of morning meeting is that classes [become] true communities, where we’re learning from each other’s strengths and we’re helping each other.”

Helping Every Student Thrive

In elementary classes, a model of differentiation called station rotation allows children to learn for 20 minutes at time in at least three different modes. As they move from station to station in small groups, they might watch online videos, create a hands-on activity, or take part in teacher-led discussions. Teachers adjust activities and groupings based on children’s readiness to stretch, or their need for support.

“Being able to move through those stations, it’s just another level of helping the students learn as much as they can each year,” said Jane Piccotti, the assistant principal. “They definitely feel excited when they make that growth.”

Personalization continues into middle school and high school with more emphasis on blended learning. Each Highlander middle schooler, for example, spends one period a day in a blended classroom, where teachers support individualized online learning. Teachers create activities and playlists tailored to each student’s needs and proficiencies, and personal dashboards track an individual’s growth and areas for improvement.

Taking a Stand

By high school, students shaped by this supportive environment have the academic mindset to dig into controversial topics. Highlander added the high school—on a separate campus—in 2013 to continue students’ “work on social justice beyond K–8.”

In Soljane Martinez’s civics class, 12th graders engage in discussions about difficult hot-button social and political topics like immigration and rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Students take sides on issues, conducting research that helps inform arguments and positions they’ll use in classroom debates with their peers.

Martinez says she challenges students to consider perspectives different from their own as they learn to support their opinions and beliefs.

“At Highlander, we want students to be able to look at something critically,” said Jessica Blanco, the assistant head of school. “They need to know how to advocate for themselves, but they also know they have to take in various perspectives.”

Highlander is a good reminder that activism can lead to meaningful results.

A former student of Martinez’s named Domingo was among the high school’s first graduates last June. He credits Martinez and his Highlander experience with preparing him to tackle whatever challenges await next.

“We live in a world where people feel it’s acceptable to just look at your skin and believe who you are,” Domingo said, reflecting on Martinez’s class. “For me to see that somebody was just like me and able to succeed—she has inspired me to be a better person, to believe that I can do anything I want.”

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Brian Rock's picture
Brian Rock
Civic Educator and Social Studies Teacher in East Orange

Talking about controversial or uncomfortable issues in class - and learning to empathize with others - is so important when it comes to civics and character education.

andreasteinfeld's picture

I commend your school district for providing students with real-world experiences. This does make learning more authentic and engaging.

Jennifer Harper's picture

I fully agree that education first starts with building a trusting relationship and environment for students to learn. This article mentions how they continue to individualize education for students at the high school level. I'm wondering what software or websites the school is using to create the playlists?

rose mary grant's picture

At the High School Level we are using Google Classroom and Blend Space to create playlists and interface with students and their parents. At the Middle School we are using the Summit platform.

Miranda Posten's picture

I truly believe in building a community amongst our students. It creates a foundation for them as learners as well as a comfort zone to explore their interests.

Jennifer Parvin's picture

This is very inspiring. I wonder if, in addition to researching social issues in order to inform their positions as they take sides during debates, students also have the chance to learn the complementary, but very different mindset and skillset of skillful discussion and / or dialogue.

c.joung's picture

I loved reading this article about building a community for the students to learn in. I think as a future educator that this is something that I would love to foster into my classroom, but I am also thinking about how I can do that and also cover all the curriculum that needs to be covered. I do agree that having that community and almost family feel in the classroom promotes learning and also accountability with the students. The community helps the students help each other out and stay as one unit as they learn. I think it is amazing what they are doing over there as they foster this community in the classroom so that the students are more invested in each other and in each other's learning as well.

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