Flexibility, team approach make this school work

SCHOOL’S IN: Rose Mary Grant, head of Highlander Charter School, with a group of the school’s students. She said the school uses social gatherings to show its teachers it appreciates their work. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
SCHOOL’S IN: Rose Mary Grant, head of Highlander Charter School, with a group of the school’s students. She said the school uses social gatherings to show its teachers it appreciates their work. / PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY

It’s a tough time to be a school teacher in Rhode Island, particularly in Providence public schools, where many teachers faced dismissal notices and school closings this year. The discord among the state’s educators has made teachers and staff at Highlander Charter School all the more grateful that they are part of a unique organization that understands urban school teachers.
“We have great leadership here who offer us a sense of security and support,” said John Wolf, an eighth-grade math teacher at Highlander. “The parents and the kids are also supportive, because they want to be here, and that helps.”
Highlander Charter School is an urban charter school on the South Side of Providence with 284 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. It’s supported through public funding and grants to provide an alternative to other public schools. Students get in through a lottery system, and demand for a spot at Highlander is high because it offers innovative education practices proven to empower city children.
The charter school also offers private school-like features, such as small classes and individual attention, but in a diverse public school setting. So, teachers at Highlander are able to develop individualized learning plans that help their students acquire the skills they need, and they can teach students about topics that interest and engage them.
And since the students go through a lottery to be there, the kids and parents are typically eager to learn and focused on achievement, Wolf said. Working with students who want to be in school can be very rewarding for teachers.
The staff does a good job of working together as a team to make a lasting, positive impact on the students and the community. That said, working in an urban school can be very challenging, so the teachers and support staff rely on one another.
Wolf, who left a Providence-based, all-boys private school seven years ago to work with the diverse student population at Highlander, said there is unwavering support among colleagues.
“There are some days that are really tough, so it’s good to know you are working with people you know you can rely on for support,” Wolf said. “There is a good collective sense of humor, which also helps.”
It also helps that Highlander is a unique academic culture based on shared leadership and transparency, so everyone works together to develop plans and curriculum decisions based on open discussions among all teachers, said Rose Mary Grant, head of Highlander Charter School.
“Everyone at the school knows their role is valuable,” Grant said. “Our food-service worker is just as important as the receptionist is as important as I am, because if any one of us is out, things don’t run smoothly. We all do whatever needs to be done, whether it is picking up a mop or stepping in for a teacher who needs to leave class for an hour.”
The school has about 40 employees, mostly full time, and some consultants who offer tutoring. Many students are at the poverty level and have special learning requirements, so teachers receive specialized training to address diverse students of varying learning abilities, some of whom don’t speak English as their primary language.
“Our teachers spend a lot of time on professional development, learning to work with families of different cultures, and students who have learning disabilities, because we want all of our students to get the same level of education,” Grant said. “We set the bar high, and everyone deserves to reach that high standard.”
The school seeks out employees who are as diverse as the student population in terms of age, culture and abilities, so that diverse students can relate to teachers and staff. For instance, one of the school’s staff members is a survivor of a traumatic brain injury and is wheelchair-bound with hearing, vision and learning impairments. He serves in the second-grade classroom with the help of his canine companion and has enlightened students on issues of inclusion and empathy, while teaching them literacy and logic using adaptive technology.
Highlander also participates in the Foster Grandparents Program, through which elderly men and women help out in classrooms. Since 2000, Highlander also has hosted 22 AmeriCorps teams, totaling 95 AmeriCorps members. Over the past four years, 10 AmeriCorps graduates gained employment at Highlander upon completion of their service.
In addition, Highlander hires student teachers from the Brown University/Wheeler School MAT program in Elementary Education, which is a 12-month master’s degree program leading to Rhode Island teacher certification in grades 1 through 6.
Wolf said working in a diverse environment can be challenging at times, but in general, co-worker relationships are built on respect and many staff members are close friends in and out of school.
Highlander also encourages social gatherings throughout the year to keep spirits up and to show that the organization cares about its teachers and staff, Grant said.
“Validating and appreciating what they do every day is so important, and it doesn’t have to cost much,” Grant said.
Highlander also promotes good health, so all employees have free, 24-hour health and fitness memberships. Throughout the year, Highlander Charter School hosts exercise classes onsite, and employees participate in the statewide exercise and weight-loss challenge, ShapeUp RI. &#8226

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