XQ+RI’s TAPA Is on a Journey to Create a School that Is High Love and High Rigor

This innovative arts high school in Rhode Island puts relationships at the center.

By Katelyn Silva

The Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA) is one of two XQ schools in Rhode Island that receive XQ support to redesign its school. TAPA is known for its robust arts program and is working to increase its academic rigor. The school builds deep relationships with students and creates an environment of “high love.” However, the XQ school design process challenges that core sentiment at TAPA. Can you truly create a school of “high love” if you don’t couple it with “high rigor”? How do you deliver interdisciplinary arts integration rigorously and authentically that mirrors the real world?  These are the types of probing questions we hope all schools are asking—especially at a moment when many are rethinking and reprioritizing how to meet the students’ needs during a pandemic. 

At TAPA, students experience interdisciplinary learning experiences that align the arts with core subjects like math and literacy. Students at TAPA learn to use artist’s skills like self-reflection, continual practice, creation, collaboration, critical thinking, and community in their academic classes. The school builds scholar-artists who use their voices, their talents, and their lifelong love of learning to transform communities and the world. However, TAPA cannot finish the journey to standards-aligned curricula, authentic and seamless interdisciplinary learning, and rigorous instruction overnight. The school continues to take a hard look at its shortcomings and progress—asking themselves difficult questions for improvement.  

“We have nine years of data that shows we have not been hitting our academic milestones,” explained Ammar Zia, TAPA’s director of teaching and learning. “At TAPA, we consider ourselves high love; however, we know we haven’t always provided a high rigor environment.” The community at TAPA—its educators, its students, and their families—are working together to improve this environment and have begun meeting the challenge by creating high-quality curricula for all its subjects, particularly for math where they’ve historically fallen short.

“One of the main goals we had when entering the XQ process was to shift our reputation from a school strong in the arts but weak in academics to one that’s a powerhouse in both,” explained Assistant Head of School Andy MacMannis. 

TAPA’s proposed redesign will align high rigor and high love by building high-quality standards centered around cultivating the artist’s mindset to drive academic, career, collegiate, and social-emotional excellence. While the TAPA redesign is still a work-in-progress, staff hope that TAPA graduates will be “well-rounded artists-scholars just as comfortable performing in the arts as they are in math.” These graduates will be “holders of foundational knowledge—revolutionaries who use an artist’s mindset as an entry point to fight for social justice and enter the civic world.” 

High love requires a strong curriculum.

As part of the redesign process, XQ hosts a series of Development Days meant to help schools dig into mindsets, data, and problems of practice related to redesigning high school. The latest Development Day confronted what it would take for each school to actualize their graduate profile for a diverse student body. How can TAPA build the artist’s mindset while challenging and encouraging students to achieve high academic standards? What are the tensions that arise from those two goals, and how can they be reconciled? What are the additional resources needed to provide students with both and in a way that mirrors the real world?

Like so many schools around the country, TAPA took a big step towards creating a high rigor school by adopting a high-quality curriculum aligned to college- and career-readiness standards last year.  The curriculum is Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) approved and rooted in research from Ed Reports, an online clearinghouse of high-quality curricular materials. 

The curriculum immediately raised the bar for TAPA students and created challenges and growth opportunities for the school community. The first year of this new approach was not perfect, and TAPA students voiced that their art programs did not reach the depths they anticipated—that the integration of academics and the arts was inauthentic or severely lacking.  

“Right now, the integration between arts and academics happens on the individual level. We need to move towards a more natural dynamic for the school in terms of curricula,” explained one TAPA team member.  “It has become harder for students to see that the arts and academics aren’t two separate and opposing things.” This year will focus more on seamlessly integrating the arts and academics with a particular concentration on connecting the arts and mathematics to the real world and social justice. 

Rhode Island XQ Challenge Closing Ceremony, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Providence, RI.

Creating high love and high rigor rests on robust data.

TAPA’s new rigorous curriculum came with a need for innovative assessments and metrics to provide real-time, actionable feedback to students and educators. Currently, TAPA relies on data from the state’s standardized test—a pattern for many schools and districts, despite its limiting data collection. 

“We need to use a quarterly assessment tool, it needs to match our curriculum, and it must directly inform our professional development,” said one staffer. “If our teachers don’t have strong data to base their teaching and learning on, we can’t be successful.” 

To mitigate TAPA’s reliance on annual testing data, the school’s educators plan to create frequent interim assessments to meet their academic goals. However, even when the data exists, it’s not helpful if teachers don’t know how to read the data or apply their findings. TAPA is determined to create data literacy for its teachers to make them more comfortable using and analyzing data to improve student learning.

“Our staff is incredibly smart and innovative. Once our teachers understand how to reach the standards and the key assessments, they can do it. We just need to support and help them get there,” said Zia.

Keith Dysarz, XQ senior director of state and local partnerships, told the team that the tensions they were grappling with were normal and healthy. “The process TAPA is undertaking to ensure their students graduate with the knowledge and skills necessary for postsecondary success is what we want from all schools. It’s the embodiment of what we mean when we say college and career ready—and it’s not easy work. TAPA is reflecting on what they want in their graduates, confronting the hard reality of where they are falling short, and engaging all stakeholders in support of a transformative path forward.”  

He also encouraged TAPA to think strategically about how they communicate the school’s curricular transformation so that stakeholders are a part of the process, and suggested framing the school’s dip in arts integration within a broader narrative of growth. 

Assistant Head of School MacMannis suggested that there was never actually a dip, per se, because TAPA “never really had stable levels.” 

He continued, “The new curriculum is the first step to stability and the first step in intentionally and permanently embedding the arts curriculum into the academic curriculum. It may feel like we experienced a dip, but this step is one towards stability. The curriculum is one of the most important decisions we’ve made as a school focused on the arts. We need to communicate it well to our students, staff, and community.”

Encouraged by XQ coaches, the TAPA team discussed strategies to ensure they can communicate and deliver interdisciplinary arts integration in an authentic way that mirrors the real world. Zia pointed out that the work is a multi-year plan, and they must build consistency and rigor with arts integration over time. The team is still fully committed to its strategic plan and milestones, including providing the necessary professional development for staff to be standards- and data-informed. 

High love requires high expectations.  

The TAPA team is familiar with its students’ lives outside of school. Teachers and administrators know their students’ hopes, dreams, likes, and dislikes. They invest time and attention into those relationships, and that approach has served them well, especially during remote learning, when relationships have proven pivotal to keeping students engaged. Through COVID-19, TAPA has served as an example of what it means to build community through a crisis, support students’ social-emotional health, and use the arts as a means of celebration and hope. Education Post outlined examples of this in its article “XQ+RI Schools Rise to the Challenge of Distance Learning and Hope to Inspire a State.”

TAPA’s commitment to high love through deep relationships is undoubtedly a strength. However, at times, meaningful relationships can get in the way of high expectations. Sometimes, it’s difficult for educators to push students to do the uncomfortable work of engaging with rigorous content, particularly when relationships are close, and teachers want students to view them more as a friend than a mentor. This tension is important for all educators to know and TAPA staff are working through the discomfort.

“The biggest pushback from kids is that we’ve made academics too hard,” acknowledged one team member. He continued, “The truth is that we did our students an injustice when we didn’t give them grade-level work. I’m glad we own that.”

Another critical tension centered on teachers’ candid discussion of their failures. One teacher explained that not all students could read at grade level and so struggled to take curriculum-aligned tests in math because they couldn’t read the instructions or questions well enough to succeed. 

Ann-Katherine Kimble, the XQ curriculum writer and designer, stressed that teachers must understand that literacy lives outside of just English. She pushed the TAPA team to think about how they might build student reading skills through targeted literacy groups while continuing to deliver rigorous grade-level work. She said, “If you respect your students, you don’t lower the rigor because they ‘aren’t getting it.’ You adjust the mode of delivery and the number of at-bats you provide for students to get it.”

TAPA embraced this difficult conversation. 

“We have to let them fail,” one educator stated. And as XQ believes, by allowing kids to fail—and offering them restorative spaces to learn and grow—we can push kids to achieve past their perceived limitations. By lowering expectations, we deprive students of that experience, which would be a failure on the part of educators.

Zia agreed. “By holding our students to high rigor, the TAPA team sends them a message of love that they deserve and will master high expectations. The curriculum itself says that our students—many of whom are poor, students of color—can do the rigorous work. That—in and of itself—is social justice.”

Through thoughtful reflection, the team recognized that high love requires social justice and that social justice requires high expectations and rigor. 

What’s next?

Delivering on a school that develops the artist’s mindset with academic rigor is a scaffolded journey that requires implementing a high-quality arts-integrated curriculum, connecting that curriculum to meaningful data assessment, responding to that data, and helping staff understand that data with professional development. It means supporting staff and students to rise to new academic challenges with high love and high rigor because the two are interchangeable. 

TAPA’s journey serves as a model for others in the field working on self-reflection and continuous improvement. The team asks who they want to be and what they want their students to be able to do and achieve, and then, they find solutions to make that a reality. TAPA is strategically prioritizing rigorous curriculum—particularly in math, where they’ve been historically weaker—while ensuring that math is not just a focus content area, but also interwoven into other curricular areas like social justice, civics, and literacy. TAPA has come to understand that a focus on math has deep implications for their students’ ability to succeed on college entrance exams and in college and career, which is why adopting a standards-aligned curriculum was a crucial step. To deliver on the artist’s mindest, TAPA is working together to build authentic arts-integrated experiences into every aspect of the school day while providing increased social-emotional and trauma-responsive supports during this difficult time. 

If you are interested in learning more about how to center culturally responsive in your school design, check out this blog on using XQ design principles in your high school redesign and see XQ schools’ stories getting it done.