The Boulder Fund

2020 Recipient

Cynthia Robinson-Rivers
Founding Head of School
Van Ness Elementary School, DC Public Schools
Issue Areas:
Traditional School Systems, New Models
Washington, D.C.


It is estimated that as many as one in five children experience a mental disorder in a given year and that approximately 79 percent of children aged six to seventeen have an unmet social emotional or mental health need. While children’s socio-emotional health and academic success (in the short and long-term) are inextricably linked, our outdated model of school is not designed to meet the mental health and, thus, the academic needs of our students.

We imagine a city - and a nation - where every child attends a school in which his or her well-being is a central priority. We imagine a nation where schools mitigate the negative effects of stress and trauma by establishing environments in which all students feel safe and loved and can develop the socio-emotional and academic skills they need to thrive. If we build, test, and codify a model that does just that, we can create experiences to help other school communities adopt and adapt this model so that we dramatically increase the number of children whose school experience sets them up to thrive in school and in life.

Together, Van Ness Elementary and Transcend are building, testing, and beginning to spread a school model that does just that. Closed in 2006 by DCPS due to under-enrollment, Van Ness reopened after successful advocacy by neighborhood parents in 2015. Van Ness currently serves 325 PK-3 through 4th graders (ages three to ten years old) and their families. At full capacity (in the 2020-2021 school year), Van Ness will be a PK3 to 5th grade elementary school. Van Ness serves a racially and socioeconomically diverse community of families in which approximately 45 percent of our students receive free or reduced lunch and 15 percent have special needs.

Our school model -- known as the Whole Child Model -- is rooted in the understanding that children’s academic success is inextricably linked to their overall well-being, and in the belief that we can—and must—attend to the development of the whole child while also achieving excellence in academics. The Whole Child Model has three components: Student Well-Being, Student as Maker, and Student-Driven Academics. When fully realized, these components will work together to support our graduate aims and create a student experience that is palpably different from a traditional school.

Van Ness Elementary will replicate their successful school model in other DC schools and will provide models of schools that embody EdLoC’s Third Way Values by creating school experiences all children deserve.


Cynthia Robinson-Rivers is the founding Head of School at Van Ness Elementary. While at Van Ness, Cynthia has assembled an award-winning team of teachers who have successfully implemented a socio-emotional learning approach and rigorous academic instruction with strong results. Before her return to school leadership, Cynthia worked in the DCPS central office as the Director of Teacher Retention and Recognition. In that role, she developed projects to improve retention of highly effective teachers, including LIFT: Leadership Initiative for Teachers, a career ladder system for teachers, and Teaching In Action, a program that connects teachers with high performing colleagues for classroom observations. Prior to her work on teacher retention, Cynthia directed the DCPS master educator program during the inaugural year of IMPACT, the district’s teacher evaluation system. She holds a B.A. in Communication and Art from Stanford University, M.A. in Education from George Washington University, and EML from the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. She is a fellow with the first class of the Aspen-Pahara Teacher Leaders Fellowship, a recipient of the Rubenstein Award for highly effective leadership, and a faculty member with the Harvard Project Zero Classroom Summer Institute. Cynthia and her husband live in Washington, DC with their three children who all attend DC Public Schools.