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Building a Sense of Belonging

August 22, 2018
A Harvard University team is cracking the code for fostering meaningful diversity in public charter and district schools

For Lee Teitel, faculty director of the RIDES Project at Harvard University, building a nationwide network of diverse and equitable schools starts with the ABCD's.

"We want high academics for all students, a sense of belonging so no student feels like they have to 'check their culture at the door,' a commitment to dismantling racism and an appreciation of diversity in thought and people," says Lee.

A Harvard Graduate School of Education project, RIDES stands for “Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools.” It focuses on preparing graduate students and fellows for careers in education and providing diverse school communities with the tools and support to help them advance beyond desegregation into a truly integrated future.

Lee Teitel (right), faculty director of the RIDES Project at Harvard University, is committed to developing diverse K-12 public charter and district schools across the country.

Dr. Stacy Scott, the program’s director of practices research, explains the distinction: "Integration isn’t just putting bodies in the building that may look different to you. A school might be desegregated but have students tracking on completely different academic and social paths. Integration is how you blend cultures, making sure students and teachers really know each other and helping schools build the structures that make an integrated experience possible."

As the founding director of Harvard's Executive Leadership Program for Educators, Lee had spent a career bringing high-quality teaching and learning to scale in urban and high-need districts. He also was among the pioneers of the now-mainstream practice of instructional rounds in classrooms, where educators visit peer classrooms to observe, discuss and create a larger picture of learning practices throughout the school.

When James Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, reached out with the idea of launching a project to promote integrated schools, Lee leapt at the opportunity.

We realized quickly that we couldn’t just work with individual teachers and classrooms. We had to look at entire systems. The central office, the superintendent—it's about the whole pipeline.
Lee Teitel, faculty director of Harvard's RIDES Project

Initially working with a team of graduate students, Lee headed into the field, developing partnerships with local K-12 public charter and district schools, holding focus groups on what integration meant to families of different backgrounds and drilling down on how to affect change on a meaningful, widespread scale.

“We realized quickly that we couldn’t just work with individual teachers and classrooms. We had to look at entire systems. The central office, the superintendent—it's about the whole pipeline," explains Lee.

Bowman Elementary School, a district school in Lexington, Mass., serves a diverse student body. Then-principal Dr. Mary Anton recalls her collaboration with RIDES to improve anti-bias curriculum her school had developed for second graders. In one exercise, teachers handed young children decks of cards with letters and photos. They were then asked to complete a series of tasks. The complication? Some students were given a complete deck while others were missing cards, sparking a discussion of fairness and privilege.

"While we started the work on our own, having the backing of RIDES was a great, supportive opportunity to push our intellectual thinking, instilling in us the bravery to take on the harder questions," says Mary. “They helped us unpack our own unconscious bias as educators, sent our teachers to Harvard for coursework, and we've used their tools to survey the students and measure data.”

Now in its third year, RIDES is evolving, with support from the Walton Family Foundation. The two-year fellowship program prepares leaders to oversee high-priority initiatives in school systems across the region—serving students in both public charter and district schools—related to race, equity, diversity and inclusion.

RIDES also now has the resources to expand beyond schools in its own region. This year will see the launch of the RIDES Institute, a structured program of face-to-face and virtual support for school leaders and teams from across the country who want to use RIDES tools and approaches to help provide high-quality integration for students at their own schools.

Throughout their work, Lee and the team have been struck by the involvement and enthusiasm of the K-12 students themselves. "One of the most exciting pieces is how we are involving kids as agents of change, not just subjects of change," says Lee. Through storytelling exercises and opportunities to observe in classrooms together, students, teachers and administrators collaborate as equal partners.

As one three-day workshop drew to a close, Lee recalls, "it was 4 p.m. on a Friday, and the kids didn’t want to leave because they were so buzzed from having something to contribute. It meant so much to them to be actively working to improve equity in their high school. They loved getting a window into adult thinking and really appreciated understanding how much their teachers cared."

Seeds of Opportunity is a storytelling series recognizing 30 partners the Walton Family Foundation has worked with over the years to build better schools, protect our environment and improve quality of life in our home region through culture, recreation and the arts. They are people and organizations who – through creativity, imagination and urgency – are advancing opportunity for people and communities at home and around the world.
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