School Climate & Safety Opinion

More Than Instruction: Schools with the power to transform communities

By Contributing Blogger — November 03, 2017 8 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Nicole Assisi, CEO, and Sarah Lopez, Director of Partnership and Communications, both of Thrive Public Schools


In a time when our society is more divided than ever, the opportunity gap between children from wealthy families and those living in poverty is tearing the fabric of our nation. Schools are a critical lever for creating a “more perfect union.” In the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, “Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever begin to live together.”

When we opened Thrive Public School in San Diego five years ago, we knew we had the opportunity, and the responsibility, to create an intentionally diverse school. San Diego is one of the most diverse cities in the country. It is the American city with the highest number of refugees and also the fifth wealthiest. By joining a small but powerful movement of intentionally diverse schools, we could affect not only the students in our school but our community as a whole. We started on a journey to address the paradoxes in our community and nation and to build community out of our differences.

From the start, we wove the goal of serving a diverse student population into our mission statement, into our instructional choices and into our efforts to build school culture. We strive to remember every day that we are not only reading and writing and computing in school, but nurturing our future citizens and playing a critical role in shaping how they understand and care for each other.

Research shows that schools serving diverse populations benefit all students, whether by increasing cross-racial understanding and empathy, preparing students for a diverse workplace, or encouraging critical thinking and problem solving.

The journey has not been easy. To this day, we still grapple with our own biases, families’ perceptions, and students’ misunderstandings. We hope that in writing this, we can share our learning and inspire others to join us in this effort.

Thrive relies on this theory of change framework to support our work in building a thriving, collaborative, diverse environment. While these practices are particularly critical for building an intentionally diverse community, they are strategies that can help to bolster a sense of belonging at any school:

  • Bring together diverse learners and teachers
  • Create experiences of joy and opportunities to build empathy
  • Get every child more of what they need, when they need it
  • Work together to learn transferable skills and meaningful content and to find inspiration

Bring together diverse learners and teachers.

Before any work can begin, we must come together. Thrive’s diverse community is the result of outreach and relationship-building in every neighborhood, community, and demographic that we serve. Half of our students will be the first in their families to go to college. They have classmates who are the children of scientists and doctors. We teach students of many ethnicities, who practice many faiths and speak many languages, and who come to us with a wide variety of learning needs and strengths. One third of our students speak a home language other than English. Almost 20 percent of our students receive special education services.

We are intentionally building a diverse staff as well, so all our students may see themselves reflected in their teachers. This year, we launched ThriveUP, our own teacher training and credentialing program, in an effort to increase the diversity of the teacher talent pool in our city. The result has been a school staff that is starting to represent our school community, with nearly 50 percent of our staff now identifying as people of color.

Create experiences of joy and opportunities to build empathy

Connectedness helps to weave the fabric of our society. With a diverse student population that doesn’t always have common experiences to draw on, it’s important to dedicate time for students to connect with each other, to experience laughter and joy together, and to build relationships that beget more connection. Social emotional learning is at the heart of bringing a community together.

We plan regular low-stakes, high-fun opportunities for students and staff to connect. We need to laugh together before we feel safe enough to cry together. At Thrive, students attend overnight camps starting in middle school. We also host dances, hold community meetings, and participate in advisory together, among many other small and consistent moments for connection.

Another tool we use at Thrive is Council, a practice in which students sit in community with each other, focusing on listening and speaking from the heart as they pass around a talking piece. After the recent bombing in Somalia, the event came up in a Council at our high school, shared by students whose families were personally affected.

“World problems are much more in your face, much more real, because the person sitting next to me is directly impacted,” Thrive High School Director Carmina Osuna said. “Students are having conversations about the world and sharing stories that I didn’t even fathom when I was in college. We are learning together.”

Get every child more of what they need, when they need it

While much of our time is spent in community and in collaboration, it is also critical that each student experience her or his own individual and targeted growth. We work with students and families to create personalized learning profiles for each student. We also supplement classroom instruction and experiences with technology and blended learning programs that meet students at their just-right level and support their growth in foundational math and literacy skills.

Researchers are increasingly recognizing a critical truth about blended learning that has been important to our work at Thrive--blended, personalized learning is successful only when it is implemented in concert with community building and collaborative work. We strive for this balance every day.

Work together to learn transferable skills and meaningful content and to find inspiration

All students thrive in a diverse-by-design school when school staff and community members celebrate the value of collaboration among diverse thinkers. Schools can support this work by continually seeking out and celebrating a diversity of ideas, backgrounds, and styles; maintaining a bias toward action and creative problem solving, and advocating for the right supports to allow each person to succeed.

At Thrive, we use project-based learning as a regular feature of every classroom to create collaborative opportunities for children to think, problem-solve, and work together. These experiences mimic the world of work and also bring richer ideas to our community.

A significant component of the opportunity gap comes from the lack of access to social capital in homogenous low-income communities. At a diverse-by-design school, it’s possible to bridge this gap, by drawing on the parent community to help all students. Middle-class parents can bring resources to a school community, including networks that can be tapped to boost every student’s access to social capital.

At Thrive, our parents and their professional networks have supported career days and project-based learning to an extraordinary extent. They have been able to match specific student and teacher requests--for example, to meet a veterinarian or to hear feedback from a graphic artist on a design project.

“It makes those careers so much more accessible, and everybody benefits,” Osuna said.

We think of our community as a community of philanthropy: where everyone contributes time, talent and treasures to benefit the school. The treasures of our affluent families combined with the talents of our entire community creates a well-resourced program. Parents have advocated for and supported enrichment activities that benefit all students, not only individual children--funding a basketball team, volunteering to teach Spanish, cooking food for after-school events, establishing sleep-away camp scholarships, and many other contributions.

The work continues

Creating and nurturing a diverse-by-design school is not easy, and at Thrive, we still have much work to do. During our first year we lost almost 50 percent of our white families, who cited reasons like, “There are not enough kids that look like my kids,” “This neighborhood is not very nice,” and “This is just too hard for us.”

Now three years later, some families still opt out, but for the most part we have a vibrant community where we hold space to come together. Sometimes, families are not willing to commit to the work involved but most of the time, people bring their most resourceful selves to the table and we problem solve together, through frank conversations, circle practices, and restorative practices. We continue to strive for this vision, with thoughtful, intentional work and constant reflection.

We will continue to provide children the opportunity to “learn together” because we know that as adults we will learn “live together.” We are confident that in reimagining education in this way, we truly can transform our community.

CORRECTION: “The work continues” section of this post was updated to include the current state of Thrive’s work and changes over the past three years.

Photos, from top:

  • Thrive students pose for a photo during a university tour (Patricia Grey)

  • Thrive students present a project on love at an exhibition day (Shelli Kurth)

  • Thrive students collaborate on an assignment (Patricia Grey)

  • Thrive students interview a San Diego Police Department officer (Patricia Grey)

The opinions expressed in Next Gen Learning in Action are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.