Before the COVID-19 pandemic came into full view, the voice of Angélica Infante-Green, the Rhode Island Education Commissioner, bounced off the marble walls of the State House as she readied to announce new XQ schools that would receive $500,000 implementation grants and ongoing XQ support to redesign their high schools. The announcement marked the completion of a first-of-its-kind, year-long competition to rethink high school at a statewide level.
Little did anyone know that after half the state’s public high schools entered the competition and twenty schools—representing traditional public, charter, performing arts and urban, suburban and rural schools—received planning grants and embarked on an intensive design process over seven months, a global pandemic would seismically shift the education world.
“The power of the work you’re doing with XQ+RI is going to change the landscape for high schools in all of Rhode Island,” Commissioner Infante-Green said to the rotunda of educators, students, and community members mere days before the Governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order.
That call to transform the state’s education landscape took on a new urgency as Rhode Island closed schools, shifted entirely to virtual learning, and continued to prepare for a future that won’t return to business as usual—even when classrooms reopen. Never has the moment been more ripe for change as schools have scrambled to innovate and adjust instruction. The new XQ schools, announced as the Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA) and Ponaganset High School, rose to the challenge.
TAPA’s “Artist Mindset” Is A Balm During Troubled Times
TAPA, the only performing arts school in urban Providence, offered a redesign plan that deliberately cultivates “the artist mindset” and uses the arts to drive academic, career, collegiate and social-emotional excellence. Their goal is to become a national model for what high school can be by putting the myth to rest that students must choose between arts and academics in order to be successful through college and career.
Through COVID-19, TAPA has served as an example of what it means to build community through crisis, support students’ social-emotional health and use the arts as a means of celebration and hope. For example, on “Fortunate Friday,” TAPA staff shared a YouTube video of what they feel fortunate for, such as their students’ resilience, bravery, and art; daily virtual advisory meetings that include dancing, singing and laughter; students who are protecting their mental health though virtual social work counseling; and the staff, parents, and healthcare workers who make it all possible. They also reiterated the message, over and over again, that art can help heal the world, especially in times of crisis.
TAPA’s community of artists—students and staff— are bolstering teachers, staff and families with their creations during an unprecedented time. Students haven’t missed a beat creating music, dance choreography, films, theater performances, and visual arts and sharing their work through virtual means to inspire themselves, peers, teachers and their wider community. And, in response to a key improvement in their application, they’ve also already turned their attention to providing more rigorous mathematics instruction.
A virtual Senior Showcase took place earlier this month as part of a number of celebratory experiences to make sure the senior class was honored and recognized. All students from all majors were expected to share in the experience together and offer post-event reflections. In addition to the ongoing virtual delivery of academic instruction, TAPA kept its community informed with newsletters and videos on an almost daily basis, in English and Spanish.
“Although we may not get to experience learning together in our classroom, it’s my goal to stay connected to my classroom (and the kids that fill it) as much as possible,” explained TAPA teacher Julie Cortese, who issued an engaging Cortese Challenge to help her students express their appreciation for their heroes while getting outside and creating art.
Ponaganset High School’s Virtual Approach Paves the Way for Their Redesign
The XQ redesign application from Ponaganset High School, a rural high school with 650+ students, outlines how the school will rethink space and scheduling so that student interests drive learning time, and also provide a competency-based system with badges to capture the specific skills students are learning on personalized pathways. Clearly, in the wake of COVID-19, space and scheduling shifted dramatically on its own and Ponaganset seized the opportunity.
Superintendent Michael Barnes from the Ponaganset team reports, “This period of remote teaching has created an unplanned but incredibly powerful pilot of an aspect of our school design. The comfort and confidence gained with remote teaching will likely impact how we offer tutoring services and will inform the teachers and students about the potential of expanded virtual learning opportunities in the future. In essence, we have a real-time opportunity to zoom-in on new paradigms of instruction and student supports.”
Educators at Ponaganset modeled how to make learning relevant within the context of the pandemic, ensuring virtual attendance was meaningful, and providing clear directives and assessments for online projects. For example,
Two 9th-grade humanities teachers, Ashlee Burns and Rita Kerr-Vanderslice, were co-teaching virtually. They completed a presentation on how they engaged students in thoughtful conversations about the pandemic via Zoom, walking students through the project and assessment through both written and video directives, and using multiple cycles of reading and response to texts for deeper learning. Students were expected to respond to discussion questions as a meaningful means of attendance beyond just “checking a box.” The learning experience was designed to continue the SEL connection with students, scaffold new content, and provide models to guide student thinking.
Another teacher, David Moscarelli, a former RI Teacher of the Year, taught a unit on COVID-19 to his microbiology class. The students learned the micro-history of infectious disease, dug into COVID-19 specifically, probed potential solutions and studied the immune system. They also thought about how Ponaganset High School can and must change in the age of COVID-19.
No one was fully prepared for the implications of a global pandemic on our education system, but Rhode Island’s XQ Schools were committed to becoming models for the state pre-COVID and are equally dedicated now. Ultimately, the point of a process like XQ+RI is that there are no winners and losers because the entire state will share in the learnings and continue their work of transformation.
XQ has committed to supporting every team that took part in the competition with $20,000 to help with their implementations and two additional schools were awarded Accelerator grants with $125,000 to help them move toward XQ School status. Every school receives ongoing support from XQ with webinars throughout the year and full access to XQ tools and resources.
The journey isn’t over. In many ways, through COVID-19 and beyond, it’s just begun.
Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago ...