CYNTHIA ROBINSON-RIVERS ON CREATING THE SCHOOLS WE WANT FOR ALL CHILDREN
ABOUT THE COMPASS LEADERS
EdLoC’s Third Way Values drive all we do- they ground us in our work and help us chart a path forward. Within our membership there are leaders whose example serves as a compass, a North Star, guiding us in our own work. Our Compass Leaders series is a chance to see what our values look like in action and to lift up members who are truly exemplifying one of our values in all they do.
July’s Values Focus is Creating the Schools We Want for All Children. We are thrilled to highlight the important work of Boulder Fund recipient Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, Head of School at Van Ness Elementary. Van Ness is a special place. It offers many meaningful enrichment opportunities to its diverse population of students based on the whole-child model. These enrichments, which span from yoga to coding, encourage the wellness of the entire child because research shows that healthy children are better students. Perhaps most uniquely, Van Ness offers makers spaces, which are workspaces dedicated to hands-on experimentation, creation, and strengthening critical thinking skills. As a leader, Cynthia strives to create a joyful environment where being a lifelong learner and a compassionate person is the goal.
By protecting time and space for these enrichments, Cynthia has pushed back on the idea that test prep is the only route to strong performance. In fact, her students are outperforming their peers academically across the board. Regardless of income, all students at Van Ness have access to high-quality academic and enrichment options, and under Cynthia’s guidance, they grow to be strong, smart citizens. We believe that Cynthia’s school is a model of a school that align’s to EdLoC’s Third Way Values and the kind of school we would want for all children, including our own.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? What was your educational experience like?
I grew up in Washington, DC, and attended DC Public Schools through eighth grade, then parochial and independent schools for high school. I excelled in school and was highly disciplined about class and homework, but always was aware of my privilege as the daughter of two lawyers, both college educated. The extent to which being part of a family with rich language used at dinner, access to nutritious meals, a spacious home with my own room, etc. afforded me opportunities that members of my extended family and certainly most young black people in Washington, DC, did not have. This is part of what drove me to the field of education. I wanted to ensure children who do not have the socio-economic status I was born with can meet their full potential.
What was your early teaching experience like?
The school environments I taught in at the start of my career were challenging. In Oakland, I taught 30 kindergartens with no assistant teacher and no enrichment classes for my students. The students experienced academics but did not have the opportunity to attend art, music, or language classes. Since this was also a school in an economically disadvantaged area, the children were not likely to have access to those kinds of enriching experiences outside school. Observing this firsthand has helped me see the value of a school day that balances academic instruction with authentic opportunities for creative pursuits.
While I was imperfect as a young teacher, I was passionate. I had a deep sense of urgency concerning my students’ academic achievement, and I was highly organized regarding the analysis of data and helping students move toward their goals. All these factors contributed to my students’ success, even though I was still fine tuning my pedagogical skills and facilitation. I carry many of those experiences with me to this day.
Why did you decide to join Van Ness?
Van Ness offered a unique opportunity to found a school, select willing and values-aligned staff members, start with just early childhood, and grow by a grade level each year, beginning with a newly renovated building. It was the kind of start that charter schools often have when they first begin, but with the infrastructure and financial resources of a large school district and an ideal situation for a founding head of school. Van Ness is also situated in the Navy Yard area of South East Washington, with a great deal of economic and racial diversity. Unlike other gentrifying areas of the city, the percentage of students who receive free and reduced-price meals and identify as students of color increases each year at our school, as residents of the area who had been displaced during the revitalization of the neighborhood return to housing units set aside for lower-income families. The diversity that this has resulted in at our school is unique, especially given trends that indicate American schools are steadily becoming less diverse. With our nation and world currently struggling through intense polarization, with camps of people only listening to and spending time with others who are like them, the diverse design of the Van Ness community allows our students and families to connect and collaborate across racial and economic differences. Facilitating this is a challenge, but I believe that fostering those connections is critical work to heal our country, cultivate empathy, and understand our children, who will one day be adult citizens making decisions and creating policies.
Why is Van Ness so special as a school?
Van Ness is special because we have teachers and staff who are truly committed to educating the whole child and focus on students’ emotional and physical development in addition to their academic growth. A student’s daily schedule might include traditional guided reading instruction, online learning for math fluency, and time for evidence-based writing, while also including time to create a catapult in the maker space, make a portrait in the style of Kehinde Wiley in the art center, or create a personalized emoji in the animation station. Both academic instruction and STEAM experiences are critical, as students develop their potential in all developmental domains, not just cognition. We never remove recess, and we highly value the necessity of outdoor, unstructured play for both healthy exercise and building autonomy and independence. We have been implementing our Student Wellbeing model for several years and aim to teach students, when they lack skills regarding behavior, as an alternative to harshly punishing them. We also recognize that, with a population of students who have faced trauma that manifests as challenging behavior in school, we must have systems of support in place and the human capital to implement them.
I think we want more innovative schools like Van Ness for all kids. As we offer these opportunities to define school for students, we should consider redefining the success of schools and how we might shift from a definition purely based on traditional academic measures. Doing so would give schools the flexibility to offer more meaningful, relevant, and joyful experiences to students and often can better prepare students with the skills they will need for future employment beyond academic learning. I believe we are holding ourselves to a high standard of excellence and acknowledge that our students who are furthest from opportunity also deserve to have the experiences that their affluent counterparts receive. Our students deserve foreign languages, fine arts, yoga, gardening, trips to museums, and live performances. They have the right to access these types of experiences.
Tell us about your maker’s spaces.
Every class is equipped with a maker space, an area or areas in the classroom with materials and tools that allow students to respond to challenges, tinker with materials, and solve real-world problems that connect to their academic unit of study. This project-based and hands-on approach promotes active engagement, gives students choice and autonomy, and encourages teachers to facilitate learning that is directly relevant to students’ school or community. It also builds many of the skills that the most successful companies say are critical for a potential employee to have—creativity, flexibility of thinking, agency, perseverance, collaboration, and teamwork—not to mention that students are gaining an understanding of engineering and other important science concepts while having a part of their day that is simply fun and a respite from the paper−pencil learning that many students may not be able to access as easily.
How are you seeing the COVID crisis impact the families you serve?
Our families’ financial struggles have had a huge impact on their ability not only to ensure students continue academic instruction, but also meet their basic needs. We found that our caregivers’ primary need was support with food and started by assisting with this. The stress of the pandemic also took a mental and emotional toll on our students and families, so we responded to this with support from our social worker, psychologist, and behavior staff. Collectively, they offered resources, therapy, and regular check-ins. Lack of access to technology when learning is taking place in a completely virtual format was another condition exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. We prioritized the distribution of laptops and hotspots, but continued technical assistance with technology will be needed moving forward.
If you could recommend a few key policies or practices that would improve things dramatically for our communities, what would they be?
- Prioritize teacher wellness. Emotionally healthy teachers are good teachers. When teachers are taking care of themselves, they then have the capacity to receive training on students’ socio-emotional development and then be equipped to embed social-emotional learning competencies into their instruction (both their content and their teaching practices).
- Increase time for students to engage their physical bodies during the school day. This can be in a variety of ways, including the type of hands-on learning a maker space offers, consistent opportunities for structured movement or physical education classes, and an expansion of, rather than a limitation of, non-structured physical activities like recess. Our students have toxic stress, and one effective way to release the cortisol caused by it is to allow students to expend their energy during physical work and play.
- Add flexibility to school day scheduling to allow time for students to move out of age-/grade-based cohorts and instead work in small groups of students who either have the same needs or interests for periods of remediation/acceleration/enrichment daily.
We want to thank Cynthia for taking the time to share these insights with us. Be on the lookout for our next Compass Leader installment that features a member who is empowering Latinx families in his community to advocate for their children and creating sustainable change.
Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC) is a community of more than 300 leaders of color working to elevate the leadership, voices and influence of people of color in education and to leading more inclusive efforts to improve education. EdLoC aims to advance a third way that breaks through the polarizing divides that have consumed efforts to improve public education and to forge the alliances needed to realize and sustain EdLoC’s vision of providing low-income children of color expansive and substantive opportunities for the highest levels of academic and economic attainment.