David, a student at Van Ness Elementary School (a district PK3-5th grade school in Washington, D.C.), is brilliant. He’s curious about the world around him, and always seeking new opportunities to learn. No matter the situation, he is a teambuilder, peacekeeper, entrepreneur and thought leader. Nonetheless, on all formal measures of achievement, he is ‘below level’ in reading and math and – at most schools – would be at risk for having to repeat 3rd grade.
But what if a school figured out how to leverage David’s strengths, tapping into his non-academic skills and providing him with diverse and meaningful learning opportunities, while also addressing his academic needs? This dual focus on academic achievement and the development of the whole child is the goal of educators at Van Ness, who have partnered with Transcend, Inc. since 2016 to build and spread a powerful new school model rooted in social-emotional learning (SEL).
Transcend supports visionary leaders like Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, Van Ness’s principal, and vibrant school communities with research and development (R&D) capacity that helps them innovate, pilot and spread breakthrough school models. Since its launch in July 2015 by Jeff Wetzler and Aylon Samouha, Transcend’s work has been built on five key pillars:
- It is time to reimagine school as we know it.
- Communities must be in the driver’s seat.
- Targeted supports can help design teams advance progress.
- Access to models that others have developed gives communities more options.
- Innovation can either perpetuate or disrupt inequity – Transcend believes the latter.
Guided by these core beliefs, Transcend is working to build equitable learning environments that prioritize personalized learning, meaningful teacher and student experiences, cultural responsivity and parent engagement, among other factors, in two ways. First, by supporting communities’ efforts to redesign their school systems and connecting them with innovative models and structured processes for implementing them. And second, by partnering directly with schools to build and spread “catalytic models” that offer communities a diverse range of relevant, high-quality school design options they can adopt and adapt to meet the unique needs of their student population.
Transcend doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to school redesign, which is why they’re creating a menu of approaches that all kinds of schools and communities can adapt to fit their needs. “We touch every kind of community: charter, urban, rural, district, magnet schools,” said Jeff Wetzler, Co-Founder of Transcend. “We are pushing boundaries across pre-k-12, across the country, both in school and out of school.”
For the past three years, Transcend has partnered with Valor Collegiate Academies, a network of public charter middle schools in Nashville, Tennessee, whose students rank in the top 2% in the state in growth and achievement. Valor uses SEL as a foundation for its school community. The network pioneered a model called “Compass,” which is meant to guide every member of the school, including staff members, through their own adaptive developmental process. Early in the partnership, Transcend’s support helped Valor to run a pilot to better understand exactly how and to what extent “Compass” was benefitting kids, helping Valor refine its model.
“The level of intimacy and emotional intelligence that gets engaged and is developed at Valor is extraordinary,” said Wetzler. “Academics of the school are top-notch and the relationship between the two is special.”
Today, Transcend is helping Valor to spread its “Circle” discussion and community-building protocol – in which students and teachers gather in small groups once a week for an open dialogue about their feelings, experiences, and relationships – to 50+ schools across the US.
Van Ness and Transcend’s partnership began shortly after the school opened, when Principal Robinson-Rivers and others participated in a collaborative 10-month program that helps schools develop and sharpen their innovative ideas and center the community’s strengths and aspirations through empathy work. When Van Ness teachers noticed that children were not coming into school ready to learn, they evolved their school model to help students get into a learning mindset first thing. Van Ness now begins every day with “Strong Start,” a morning routine that helps students get into an executive functioning state (which in turn allows them to focus and learn). Encouragingly, other schools in DC have taken notice; this fall, with support from the Van Ness and Transcend’s R&D team, five other district elementary schools are starting to pilot this approach and other aspects of Van Ness’s SEL model in their own classrooms.
“When we help schools create a proof of concept in their own building, it can really catch like wildfire and incentivize transformation across the field,” said Dr. Jennifer Charlot, a partner who leads research and development for Transcend.
Even with “Strong Start,” Van Ness noticed that some students lost their focus after the morning. Transcend is now helping Van Ness conduct research and development around this model to make it even more effective.
Funding from the Raikes Foundation has helped Transcend strengthen the way they think about research and development as a whole, connecting them to others in the field who do improvement work through the Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Network and other channels. This is helping Transcend fine tune their research process with schools so they can share it with the field in the coming years.
“We believe in the importance of evidence-based research that connects research and practice,” said Charlot. “We’re constantly working to develop and refine the best tools possible to help visionaries redesign their schools and classrooms, realize their most ambitious dreams and reimagine education.”