Rhode Island High Schools are Changing. Here’s How.

Big things are happening to high school in America's smallest state. Here's how Rhode Island schools are preparing students for the future.

By Katelyn Silva

“Flap your arms like a bird to get more open,” says Sujata Bhatt, a Design Coach for XQ+RI, a first-of-its-kind initiative to rethink high school at a statewide level. Bhatt is leading a breakout session in Providence, Rhode Island, for 20 teams chosen to receive a planning grant from XQ to develop new ways of “doing high school” in the Ocean State. The teams come from a range of school types—traditional public, charter, performing arts and urban, suburban, and rural—and have gathered for two days of breakout sessions around the application process, learner goals, and design principles, as well as for protected work time with XQ coaching support.  

Bhatt’s breakout session kicks off with a role-playing exercise designed to encourage teams to generate big, bold ideas through a back and forth between pairs. One person begins by announcing a dream goal: I want to visit Bora Bora. A partner responds with “ten times more,” encouraging the dreamer to think bigger. “I’m going to move to Bora Bora,” they reply. Again, ten times more. “I’m going to open a resort there.” You get the point. The sky’s the limit. Individuals flap their arms when their thinking gets stuck.  

“Creative, generative work requires play,” says Bhatt who is creating a safe space for teams to think outside the box and beyond limitations. The teams are fully leaning in. Voices ricochet off the walls of the classroom as partners volley ideas that grow larger and bolder. The exercise leaves the room palpably energized.

“Role-playing is so freeing,” a teacher comments. “I can move to Colorado and start a pottery school without having to think about any roadblocks—like my student loans.”  

The exercise pushes the teams to apply the same energy they’ve generated imagining big personal goals to their emerging school models. Each team is in the thick of a six-month design process, translating their visions into step-by-step high school redesign plans that prepare all learners for the 21stcentury. Early ideas in the air include cross-school learning, mentorship programs, social-emotional programming and many more. Up to five teams will receive implementation grants of $500,000 and guided support to turn their plans into reality. But first, they need to think bigger and bolder (and often, outside of their comfort zones). These initial ideas will need to become ten times more. 

While every XQ+RI planning grant team will be poised for success due to the planning process, they’d all clearly like to be one of the five with implementation support. That means thinking big and getting innovative while executing thoughtful, well-planned applications that are tight on learner goals (what knowledge, skills, and mindsets students should have when they graduate) and how to measure those goals in order to deliver a truly transformational high school experience for all students.  

Another breakout session is designed to help with the focus part. It deals exclusively with measurement and assessments, encouraging teams to look at their learner goals and get granular about how to measure them effectively. What type of assessment? Who will complete the assessment? When will the assessment happen? How will teams get the assessment? Will they build, borrow, or tweak it? Every question needs to be answered thoughtfully and in alignment with indicators, goals, and outcomes. 

During the session, coaches distribute seven different assessments with potential application to each learner goal: paper/digital assessments, surveys, admin info, performance assessments, qualitative reflections, observations, and peer assessments. 

One school reflects that they use all seven assessments currently but are not leaning on each equally. “We tend to be more traditional in our approach,” says the assistant superintendent, a member of the design team that includes teachers, administrators, students, and school board members. “Our new school design will benefit from utilizing different types of assessments more, like peer reviews and qualitative reflections.” A teacher adds, “We’ve definitely been weakest on peer assessments.” 

The deep work on assessments leads to many ‘aha’ moments like this, resulting in more detailed work plans, which will lead to more effective outcomes for future students. The ‘aha’ moments continue as teams get protected design application work time with coach feedback and support. With the help of their coach, one team quickly realizes they weren’t as close to application completion as they originally thought. They could go deeper, get tighter, and be bolder. The teams continue to see that the XQ process is an iterative one full of deeper layers of learning that requires constant reflection. 

“From the get-go, this process made us more self-reflective,” says the assistant principal from the performing arts school. “We started looking hard at our strengths and weaknesses and asking for difficult feedback about where we can improve.” For example, the school asked RIDE, the Rhode Island Department of Education, to give them feedback on their reputation in the state. What were they told? They’re a wonderful performing arts school, but not thought of as academically minded, particularly when it comes to math.  

“We took that feedback seriously. Our new school model will include putting math front and center,” he says, adding that regardless of whether or not his school receives an implementation grant, the team will realize the new design. “We are so excited about this process. It’s been such a rewarding experience.”

The final XQ+RI Design Days will take place on January 27 and 28. Teams will submit their big ideas with focused, detailed applications in mid- February. The implementation grant winners will be selected by early March.