Julie Horwitz is an associate professor of educational studies at Rhode Island College and coordinator of the Central Falls/RIC Innovation Lab, a partnership between the college and the Central Falls School District that recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.
Horwitz spoke with Providence Business News about the Innovation Lab’s current initiatives and plans for the year ahead.
PBN: What is the Central Falls/RIC Innovation Lab?
HORWITZ: The Innovation Lab is a unique, first-in-the-nation PK-20 Collaboration designed to be a catalyst for creating a vibrant shared community where new models of learning, teaching and services are developed, piloted and researched. This mutually beneficial Central Falls/RIC partnership will meet the diverse needs of all Central Falls residents; advance teaching, learning and research at RIC; and serve as an innovation laboratory for developing and piloting sustainable and replicable programs in urban education, community development and healthy communities.
PBN: Why are partnerships among teachers, students and their families critical when tackling the subject of education system reform?
HORWITZ: In recent years, conversation on public education seems to be about pointing our fingers at one group and not considering the problem together. This is not productive. The Innovation Lab provides an opportunity to work together; bringing the resources of different communities to make sure every child has options and multiple pathways for their life.
Partnership means that we all commit to one common goal, recognizing our different resources and doing what is best for students. A partnership also encourages us to consider the whole life of the child. Children don’t leave their home and community life at the door when they enter the school, and they don’t leave their school life when the school day is done. All of the learning community partners (parents, families, community members, administrators, teachers, staff and students) need to attend to the complexities of every child’s life and use our different resources to address these complexities.
PBN: What kinds of connections or programs have been forged during the Innovation Lab’s first year, and in what ways is the Innovation Lab looking at technology as part of its mission?
HORWITZ: The first year of the Innovation Lab has been extremely exciting. We have twenty plus programs up and running under the umbrella of the lab. These include students from the RIC Masters of Social Work program undertaking their internships at different schools in the district, RIC courses being taught at the district sites in collaboration with Central Falls faculty, and students from Central Falls teaching students at the RIC lab school about writing. One of our biggest programs is Friday Campus where students, parents and faculty ride a bus to RIC campus on Fridays to take part in programming. These programs range from tours of the campus so students can see themselves in a college setting to parents learning about RIC resources for their children and for their own continued education. This is an example of using our combined resources to meet the diverse needs of all of the communities.
While we are so thrilled by the many programs started in the 13-14 school year we also know that we have not reached our goals of innovation. This year has been a lot about building relationships and trust. We are all in this for the long haul and you can’t go on a journey if you don’t know and trust the people you are traveling with. This year has been about starting the relationship and building and connecting. Our hope for next year is not necessarily doubling the number of projects but seeing what innovations emerge from our existing projects. What haven’t we even thought about yet? How can we really not just think outside of the box but remove the box and start to really think about education and community in new and innovative ways? This is what happens in labs and this is what we hope happens with the partnership.
PBN: How does the Innovation Lab create a mutually advantageous learning environment for both Central Falls School District students and RIC students?
HORWITZ: This is a common question. So often I hear, so you are going into Central Falls to teach them what to do, you are going to make it right there. This couldn’t be further from the truth. We are joining together to really address the needs of both communities. This works because we require that each project has a leader from each community, RIC and Central Falls. Friday Campus is successful precisely because of this dual leadership. On the Central Falls side, Denise Debarros, coordinator for family, community and school partnerships, knows her community needs and the resources within the community while LaTanya Monteiro, educational support facilitator at RIC, knows the RIC community and is able to connect existing resources to the CF needs. They meet often and communicate sometimes daily but they always make sure there is a balance between the needs of each campus. This balance is one of the primary reasons the Innovation Lab has been so successful in this startup year. This is not about helping but about being in service to each other with a common goal in mind.
PBN: What are the unique challenges that educators and students face in urban communities, and how is the Innovation Lab developing an answer to those challenges? In what ways is the Innovation Lab looking at technology as part of its mission?
HORWITZ: I really believe the biggest challenge for urban communities is poverty. We could name other factors but really it comes back to poverty and time. Time we cannot change, but poverty we can address. One example is the Parent College created by Jennifer Giroux, interim associate vice president of professional studies and continuing education, and Patricia Martinez, executive director for family and student support at Central Falls, in conjunction with others. The Parent College meets three nights a week at the CF district and programs have included financial literacy, healthy eating and ESL supports. There is daycare provided for families and then a community dinner for the whole family of those who attended. This project addresses the immediate issue of hunger and day care along with the long term commitments to education by sharing skills, ideas and possibilities with families.
The framework of the Innovation Lab really has four domains: Healthy Communities, STEM, Access and Retention, and Lifelong Learning. While we are working on all four domains, we recently received notice that the Innovation Lab is able to hire 2 RICC AmeriCorps Vista volunteers for our Access and Retention domain and for our STEM domain. Our hope is to stop looking at silos of learning – for example, instead of STEM at the high school, view STEM from the long-term and look at STEM from preschool to adulthood. We hope the Vista STEM
Education Coordinator will work on this long-range strategic plan.