No Walls: My school’s journey to XQ+RI

Andy is redesigning his school to put equity and student voice at the center. Here's his story from the XQ+RI challenge.

By Andrew MacMannis


The first XQ+RI meeting was all the way over in Woonsocket.

It should be noted that the actual distance (15 miles) and time (23 minutes) from my school (TAPA: Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts, in Providence) is minimal, but in the mindset of many of us in the small, but mighty, state of Rhode Island, that is a distance of “traveling across the WHOLE state,” which takes “FOREVER.” 

Rhode Island is full of incredible people, bursting with creativity. It is a state with a vibrant arts scene, and delicious food. We have endless beaches, breweries, and buckets of frozen lemonade. It’s easy to see why one of the most common bumper stickers you’ll see here reads, “I Never Leave Rhode Island.” However, with immense state pride can also come a certain stubbornness: Why would I leave my town? I have everything I need right here! This is the illusion of a barrier: a wall we put up to prevent ourselves from driving a mere 23 minutes to hear about what could be a game-changing opportunity.

Throughout TAPA’s XQ+RI journey, the core team at TAPA has talked about having #NoWalls. We don’t mean that literally (though we are moving locations, and currently, are breaking down a whole bunch of walls)… but rather, we need to bust down invisible walls between us and the institutions that can help our students and families. We need to break the walls that prevent families from taking part in the TAPA community as much as they would like, and we need to demolish the walls in our minds that say we can’t pursue great opportunities.

TAPA staff pre-wall smashing

One of these great opportunities is XQ+RI, a unique statewide challenge, geared towards rethinking high school and building a Super School. It’s the right time for Rhode Island, and particularly Providence, to be rethinking education. The Johns Hopkins University report on the Providence Public Schools has been the story of the summer in Rhode Island, and it does not paint a pretty picture: crumbling walls, bugs and mice in classrooms, unhappy teachers, administrators feeling powerless, students feeling short-changed. 

The new state commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, hosted several community forums in the wake of the John Hopkins report, where families flooded in, demanding to be heard. Many note that the problems aren’t new. Families and community members remember that a similar study said the same things in 1993, and they all spoke up then, too. Stubborn norms, invisible barriers, and a lack of imagination kept Providence in the same spot now that it was 25 years ago. It is through XQ+RI that schools like mine in Providence, and others statewide, can read reports like this, and then enact change … as opposed to staying the course and just hoping it gets better.

Joining me at the meeting in Woonsocket were two teachers, two students, a parent, a board member, and our Head of School. We all immediately reacted to the hopefulness and positivity presented to us, and relished the opportunity to think big, and imagine differently. It was all a welcome break from the stress, and occasional negativity (not by me, of course!) that comes in the world of educational leadership. We were able to challenge norms, and begin the work of defining (and re-defining) our mission, our vision, and what is possible for TAPA.

Defining our vision through the TAPA shield

Perhaps the best outcome from this first meeting was taking the TAPA shield, a symbol we had been using the whole year, and incorporating our visions and thoughts from the day. Instead of just being a logo, the shield became a map, defining the school that TAPA can be!

On our shield, you will find a scholar reading a book, an artist dancing, a graduation cap, and a star. This first XQ+RI meeting led us to match these symbols to the XQ Learner Goals

  • The scholar represents becoming a master of all fundamental literacies. We can’t let the types of gaps highlighted in reports on the students of Providence become a wall between the student and their potential. TAPA serves to reignite a passion for learning in its students.
  • The artist represents being an original thinker in an uncertain world. It is evident that after a century of our current education system, it is not adequately preparing all of our students for college, career, and independence. It is only by applying the creativity of an artist that we can chip away at the walls that stall important changes to our school system, and society as a whole.
  • The graduation cap represents being learners for life. We refuse to put up a wall between our graduates and the resources we can provide them as humans. Our doors are open to our alumni. What they can learn at TAPA doesn’t end with a diploma, and what they can learn with skills developed at TAPA is infinite.
  • The star represents being holders of foundational knowledge. The TAPA stars are engaged participants in our democratic society, and are the ones with sledgehammers driving the change, and fighting those walls.
  • The shield as a whole represents being generous collaborators for tough problems. We cannot be change-makers and disruptors if we can’t accept and embrace diversity and diverse viewpoints. We do not put up walls between ourselves; rather, we extend a helping hand.

Throughout the first meeting, I couldn’t help but let my face do what it pretty much always does: smile. This smile, admittedly, was probably even bigger than it typically is, because I was simply so excited about the possibilities for my school. In fact, at one point I was called out because of this. While a speaker was talking, she saw me and said, “it looks like this is resonating with you, do you have something to say?” Somewhat frazzled, I responded by saying, “I simply have Resting Smile Face.” It’s just part of the terrain when you are a positive person! I’ve always viewed my role as a school leader as one that requires a smile, and genuine positive energy. My primary job is to set the tone for my school community, and what better way to start than with a smile. With this in mind, I brought my smile into the XQ process, and I’ve only felt the lines in my cheeks get tighter as my grin grows bigger, knowing that our potential as a school is boundless.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of day-to-day work, or become cynical in the light of reports like the one on Providence Public Schools. However, by leading with a smile, and keeping a positive mindset, I’m excited to continue my XQ+RI journey! TAPA has been named one of the twenty finalists to reach the planning stage of the XQ+RI process, and I’m bound to be smiling while smashing down invisible walls, and building the Super School our students, staff, parents, families, community, and city deserve. I’m even willing to drive all the way back to Woonsocket for it.

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