MORE THAN CHILD’S PLAY: Highlander Charter School has shown strong success with its students, so much so that the R.I. Department of Education not only extended its charter but is allowing the school to extend its programs to pre-kindergarten and high school.
It’s an understatement to say that the problems plaguing the public educational system have been a hard nut to crack. Theorists and teachers, politicians and parents, experts and laypersons all seem to have an opinion about what ails schools and how to fix them.
At Highlander Charter School, however, school officials say they know a few things for sure: a supportive community, hard work, transparency and a staff dedicated to its mission are helping children learn, no matter what obstacles they may face.
The school, located in a restored mill building in one of the poorest sections of Providence, recently received a five-year renewal from the R.I. Department of Education in conjunction with state permission to add pre-kindergarten and high school grades. This is no small feat, especially since the state education department proposed closing Highlander just a few years ago.
At that time, the state threatened to shut down Highlander because of the standardized test scores of a small group of third graders. Although Highlander’s students overall have some of the highest New England Common Assessment Program tests in the state, standardized testing does not always reflect the cumulative effect of Highlander’s program on children, placing third-grade scores at a possible disadvantage, said Head of School Rose Mary Grant. She said the school’s close ties with its students, their parents and the local community were more important than ever as these people united in a groundswell of support for keeping Highlander alive.
“The community really came together to demonstrate that Highlander was a positive learning environment for students and that sometimes test scores do not reflect the quality of an educational program,” she said.
Highlander, which currently serves 354 students from across the state (75 percent of them from the urban ring of Providence), has been a fixture in the Elmwood neighborhood since it was founded as the state’s first independent, public charter school in 2001. Eighty-three percent of Highlander students live at or below the poverty level and qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. There is no tuition to attend the school – all students are subsidized by federal and state money, as well as vigorous fundraising by Development Director Jeanne D’Agostino. Because of this attractive package, space is at a premium at Highlander. The school’s waiting list numbers about 1,700 students.
But it wasn’t the outsized demand for slots at Highlander that guided the decision-making for the recent expansions into pre-kindergarten and high school. As is the case with all its choices, this move was driven by student need. Grant said that because most students that Highlander serves can’t get the “quality pre-K as families can afford in suburban and affluent communities,” students entering kindergarten at the school were lacking in pre-readiness skills, such as knowing colors and shapes.
The school raised the funds to offer pre-kindergarten to siblings of older students. After seeing success with that, it received funding from the state to offer pre-kindergarten on a larger scale. “It’s been exciting to us, because we’ve been able to watch our students go into kindergarten more ready to learn,” said Grant.
Highlander this year also welcomed its first ninth-grade class.
D’Agostino and Grant noted that a considerable amount of time is spent preparing students for their transition to schools after Highlander, working with families to find the best placement for their children. In many cases, even with financial aid, local private schools were not necessarily affordable, and a lack of solid public options could leave students in the lurch, hence the impetus for the expansion.
Along with this expansion will come a new building for the high school. Grant said the school was close to acquiring a location and architect, and hoped to see the building open in September 2015. When the building is finished, Grant said that the high school would move to that location, while pre-kindergarten through grade eight would stay in the original building.
D’Agostino said that the school is also beginning its first year of offering a program in conjunction with the National Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. Brought to the staff’s attention by an article in Providence Business News about network board member Linn Friedman, a local attorney, the network encourages young people from low-income areas to stay in school and learn to recognize business opportunities, teaching them how to aim for success in that world. D’Agostino said that a Highlander teacher recently returned from a training offered by the national network.
Through fundraising and expanded learning opportunities, the business community is familiar with Highlander’s mission and has been quick to respond to the school’s needs. “We’ve already had representatives from [various local businesses] come in to talk to students, and the students are doing an internal evaluation of what their interests are,” D’Agostino said.
This kind of collaboration with the community is typical of the Highlander experience. Whether the topic is individual home visits with each student’s family, opportunities to link up with foster grandparents through the Federal Hill House, or joint decision-making on school direction and policy, the school is a many-hands-on-deck operation.
“Transparency is critical, whether it’s a not-for-profit or a school. And there is transparency here between the administration, staff, our board and our families. Everyone is very clear on what the mission of the school is, and everyone is working toward the mission,” said Grant.