This RI School Places Families at the Center of the School “Ensemble”

Supporting students go beyond the four walls of a school, and it requires families and schools working together. Here's how one school is doing just that.

By Katelyn Silva

Schools are so much more than four walls. They are the people who infuse them with learning, care, and support, and who show up beyond the building—stepping up for students where they need it, when they need it. Family-Community Liaison Zuleika Vidal is the embodiment of these qualities and as a result, has an outsized impact on the Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA) community in Providence, Rhode Island. 

No School Community Without Families 

The staff members at TAPA refer to their school community as an “ensemble,” a performing arts reference for sure, but also an indication of how they consider themselves a unit with each individual critical to the whole. For Vidal, whose own daughter attended TAPA, that ensemble is not possible without each of the individual family members of its students—parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, aunt, uncles, caregivers, and beyond. 

“There’s no way we can be successful as an ensemble if we don’t include families. Schools can’t just assume that families aren’t interested in the inner workings of the school or that they only care to know when grades are coming out,” said Vidal who ensures no decisions get made at TAPA without families’ input. “We must include them in everything and communicate everything because they make us better and stronger. They know their children better than anyone. They must be part of the decision-making and their voices elevated and heard.”

The list of roles that Vidal plays at TAPA is comprehensive and many are unlikely to show up on an official job description. Not only is she the liaison between families and the school, communicating every detail of what’s happening at TAPA, she also leads admissions recruitment, building relationships with families from the moment they express interest in TAPA until graduation. She takes calls and texts late at night and on the weekends. She connects families with resources and human services. She’s the liaison for homeless students and the adult contact listed for others. She translates from English to Spanish and back again. She drops off meals and toiletries to families, particularly now during COVID-19 remote learning. If she has the opportunity to put her mask on and talk to families personally from her car versus the phone, she always chooses the former, particularly with new families joining TAPA during this uncertain time. She runs the school’s food pantry with her husband who also works at TAPA as a custodian. She listens to problems and when possible, solves them. The list goes on.

Educating a Student Means Getting Involved

Vidal says that all of the hats she wears is a “privilege” and that students need more than just an education to be successful. They need ongoing supports and so do their families. 

“I believe that we must go the extra mile for our students and families,” Vidal said. “Sometimes, school systems create environments where adults just show up, do their jobs, and go home. Maybe a teacher has a favorite student, but they aren’t building real relationships with everyone in the school and they don’t want to get involved in anything beyond the parameters of the classroom. To me, truly educating a student means getting involved.”

Assistant Head of School Andy MacMannis marvels at Vidal’s ability to connect deeply with families and get innumerable things done on their behalf while concurrently completing her BA in organizational leadership, calling her “unstoppable” and “endlessly inspiring.” At a recent professional development session, MacMannis said that Vidal’s passion brought many of the staff to tears, including himself. 

“Zuleika ensures the TAPA community is fed, is safe, and is heard,” said MacMannis who expressed gratitude for Vidal’s eleven years of service. “Her phone is always buzzing with questions, concerns, and advice-seeking from all in the TAPA community, and she is the main reason why TAPA families feel safe here.”

Being There Makes All the Difference

That level of deep trust was apparent when Vidal’s phone rang early in the morning recently. On the line, was a frantic TAPA alum who was feeling unsafe and emotionally unwell. The alum ultimately asked Vidal to take her to a mental health facility. With the sun still down, Vidal got out of bed, got dressed, put on her mask, and drove the distressed alum to the facility, walking her in and making sure she was in good hands. Vidal was there at a critical time. That matters. 

“This student is not a current student, but TAPA made her feel safe. She knew that I’d respond to her call and be there for her. She made a great choice by asking for help and reaching out. We are a particular kind of family at TAPA,” said Vidal, with a smile in her voice. “That can make all the difference.”

To learn more about building caring, trusting relationships within your school community, check out these blog posts: