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Seeding innovation in Rhode Island's schools
By / July 11, 2016 /   Loading Disqus...
A statewide network of educators who are pushing the limits of blended and personalized approaches to learning. Competency-based high schools where students are making their own decisions about which path to drive down and how fast to get there. A Gates Foundation funded national “testbed” site where entrepreneurs are working side-by-side with educators to develop next generation learning tools. Dual language immersion programs where students spend their day learning core content in foreign languages. Ubiquitous maker spaces. After school providers that are credentialing student achievements with stackable, portable, online badges. Statewide computer science programming at all grade levels.

Sound like a state that’s on the vanguard of innovating in public education? Of course it does! And it’s just a sampling of some of the forward thinking work that’s going on in public schools right here in Rhode Island.

This blog post is the second in a series designed to provide further insight into the types of education grants we make, and why we make them. (If you’re following along, you can read our first blog post in the series here). To recap briefly, our grant making in education is motivated by a deeply held belief that all children can achieve at extraordinarily high levels. We seek partners who are working to close gaps in student outcomes both within our state between students from different backgrounds, and between our state and our New England peers. And we do this in three ways: by investing in evidence-based interventions proven to close gaps in student outcomes, by supporting the needs of teachers and school leaders who are working to close these gaps, and by investing in innovative and new approaches to closing gaps in student outcomes. This blog post will dive deep into this third strategy: innovation.

Let’s start with basics. What do we mean when we say “innovation” in the education context? To us, innovative approaches in education are those new ideas that hold transformative promise to produce measurable results for a specific need in a sustainable and replicable way.

New ideas are just that, novel approaches. They inspire. They are exceptionally creative. They propose to meet unmet needs in unique ways. They can be small and simple or they can fundamentally rethink the way educational programs are delivered. They are by definition unproven and, in some cases, untested – but they hold real promise. They maintain a clear logic model that explains why and how the proposed design or intervention was developed and the short- and long-term student-level results they expect to yield over time. And, if they are proven to be successful, they have a clear path forward beyond an initial investment.

Take, for example, Rhode Island’s strong commitment to personalized or “student-centered” learning. Personalized learning means, essentially, allowing students greater autonomy over when school happens, where it takes place, what it consists of, and how fast or slow they progress through it. In the personalized model, teachers pivot away from direct instruction and instead spend time curating content and coaching students as they work through their own personalized learning plans.

It might sound like a futuristic approach, but it’s happening right now at schools across our state. In some Rhode Island classrooms, educators working in personalized settings have even adopted the job title “learning facilitator” over the more traditional “teacher.” Earlier this school year, three Rhode Island schools partnered with a network of California-based charter schools called Summit Public Schools to adopt their Personalized Learning Plan platform. The PLP is an online, self-directed learning platform that allows high school students to progress through content at their own pace. The Foundation was pleased to support this first cohort of Rhode Island adopters of the Summit approach. Based on their early successes, we recently made a second grant for a cohort of four additional schools – Providence’s Gilbert Stuart Middle School, Del Sesto Middle School, E-Cubed Academy and the Providence Career & Technical Academy – to adopt the platform in the coming 2016-2017 school year.

This highly customized approach requires a significant amount of technology and, of course, teachers and school communities that are prepared to deploy it in their classrooms. This is where organizations like Rhode Island’s Highlander Institute come into play. The Highlander Institute provides professional development and consulting support to Rhode Island schools interested in learning how to better integrate technology into classroom instruction. This approach, often called a “blended” approach in reference to the combination of online and traditional instruction, is being spearheaded by the Highlander Institute’s FuseRI Fellowship program. Fuse Fellows are Rhode Island educators currently teaching in our district and public charter schools who are particularly advanced in their adoption of blended practices. Through their Fellowship, these educators spend time assisting their educator peers in other districts to learn from their experience. It’s a peer-to-peer model of professional development that taps the expertise of Rhode Island’s own, homegrown experts. The Foundation is proud to have provided initial launch funding to the Highlander Institute back in 2013 and to continue supporting their work through new partnerships with districts around the state.

But not all innovation needs to be driven or grounded in technology. Take, for example, Rhode Island’s emerging cohort of dual-language immersion programs. Dual language programs do away with the idea of teaching Spanish for a fifty minute block once a week. Instead, they enroll students – typically in kindergarten – in a full immersion program whereby all core academic content is taught in a second language. The model holds benefits for both English Language Learners and for English-only students. The Foundation was pleased to support the launch of two new dual-language immersion programs in the 2015-2016 school year in the Pawtucket and South Kingstown school districts, both of which are benefitting from the expertise of educators at the International Charter School.


Innovation need not occur within our traditional interpretation of the school day or the school building, either. Take, for example, the Providence After School Alliance and their experiments with “digital badging.” Digital badging is a way for after-school providers to recognize the skills and experiences that young people acquire outside of the classroom. Young people can collect them in a digital portfolio and use them to build a comprehensive profile of their interests and skills for college counselors or future employers. The Rhode Island Foundation is pleased to support the Providence After School Alliance in piloting this approach through their AfterZone and Hub programs.

Finally, Rhode Island is home to some strong examples of innovative school design taking place at the high school level. Ponaganset High School’s College and Career Pathways are redefining what career and technical education looks like in the twenty-first century, offering students the opportunity to combine a meaningful career pathway in fields like engineering, biomedical and information technology with a rigorous academic experience. The Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College, a unique four-year program that starts in the tenth grade, includes a year of college courses and culminates in a nursing certification, is one such example. Through Rhode Island’s new statewide dual & concurrent enrollment program, all high schoolers across the state are now similarly eligible to take college level coursework at the high school level. Rhode Island’s Sheila “Skip” Nowell Leadership Academy, a school designed to serve the unique needs of pregnant and parenting teens through a blend of on-line and in-person supports, and UCAP, an accelerated high school program for students who have repeated a grade or are at risk of dropping out, serve as two other strong examples.

To be clear, these examples are in many ways exceptions to the rule. But that’s the point. We know that every school community is different. Different bodies of students bring different needs, different interests, different assets, and different passions. Our goals in supporting individually innovative approaches in public education, therefore, are twofold. First, of course, we hope to support educators in testing approaches that, if successful, can be replicated and adopted at larger scales. And we see evidence of this happening throughout our state, often in unique partnerships between our public charter schools and our traditional district schools.

But, at a more abstract level, we also hope that our overall effort to seed innovative approaches around our state helps our school systems become more comfortable with the idea of meeting student needs in flexible and creative ways. We hope to help support a statewide culture of innovation in public education where unique approaches to meeting student needs are developed, tested, modified and tested again in rapid cycles.

What does innovation mean to you? Are you an educator developing or piloting a new idea in your classroom with your students? We want to know about it! As always, we look forward to working side by side – and learning from – the inspiring teachers and school leaders across our state working to make a difference for Rhode Island’s young people.

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