By: Jeff Heyck-Williams

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​The Two Rivers Public Charter School Mission

To nurture a diverse group of students to become lifelong, active participants in their own education, develop a sense of self and community, and become responsible and compassionate members of society.

Written above is the mission of our school. We share the mission at every parent event. We read the mission at the start of every professional development session that we run with staff. The mission is printed and prominent in every classroom. We often say we are a mission-driven school and the words of our mission are somewhat ubiquitous in the life our school.

But what does it mean?


If the words are reduced to an empty platitude, then rereading the mission becomes an exercise in banality. It is in the meaning behind the words, and how that meaning is lived out between the colorful walls of Two Rivers that our mission stands as a guiding light for our work as educators in the 21st century. We cannot rest with a cemented vision for our mission, but must allow our mission to live and breathe in the experiences and interactions of each of our students, staff, and families. These experiences inform and deepen our understanding of the words we reread each week. 

With that in mind, I have found it useful to reflect on each of the individual components of our mission as they relate to building the kind of learning community to which we aspire. 

TO NURTURE

Beginning at the beginning, our mission starts with the phrase “to nurture.” To nurture means to support and encourage and as such is at the heart of our work as educators and as a learning community. Our collective work is not simply to be founts of information, but to provide a caring foundation for children to create meaning and become leaders of their own learning. As the now clichéd phrase states, we are to become less the sage on the stage and more the guide on the side. In the classroom, this means finding the instructional moves that support a safe environment for students to take risks, to fail and receive meaningful feedback, and ultimately to succeed. 

A DIVERSE GROUP OF STUDENTS 

Following this call to nurture, the mission continues with the phrase “a diverse group of students.” Let me start at the end of this phrase with the word “students.” The core of our mission centers around this single world. It is for the students that we do any of the things that we do. They must sit at the heart of our thinking as we plan, teach, assess, and do all of the other things that go into nurturing children. In many ways if you boiled our mission down to just three words, you could couple the infinitive “to nurture” with the noun “students,” and you would have a pretty good idea of what it is that our school does. Thus every choice we make in planning and teaching should be in the service of nurturing our students. 

Moving on to the rest of the phrase, “a diverse group of students,” speaks to the wide range of differences in identity and experience that our students bring with them to our school. As such, we value these differences in what they bring to the learning experience, and work hard to provide a welcoming environment to anyone that walks through our doors. By intentionally valuing what each individual brings to our learning community, we create an opportunity to learn from our unique perspectives of the world. 

Yet, what does diversity truly mean? We often associate the term diversity with race, and in terms of race, Two Rivers’ population is roughly 62% African-American, 31% Caucasian, and 7% other races reflecting the diversity of the city in which we live. This is an essential aspect of our diversity. 

However, for me, diversity neither begins nor ends with race. Diversity should reflect all of the ways that we are different from one another. These should include how we look at each student as a whole child with a multitude of characteristics that inform their identity. 

In addition to race, these characteristics include considerations of the socio-economic status of our students, their relationships in their families, and their cultural heritage. 

In education specifically, diversity also speaks to the varying aptitudes and abilities of every student. Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences reminds us to look for the many ways that our students can be intelligent about the world, and reminds us to teach in ways that connect with every child’s modality. In addition, students come to our community with a wide array of experiences and skills that they gained at home and previous schools. Nurturing a diverse group of students means meeting each of those students where they are and differentiating our instruction to help all students grow into their potential. It means providing after school tutoring to build a foundation of knowledge and basic skills for some that come with deficits in literacy and math. It means experiences that push all students to think more deeply, identify patterns, and create more complex responses to problems that they face. Regardless as to where they come to us from, it means taking what students know and are able to do, and expanding on that to reach new heights. Ultimately we value our diversity in all of its many facets because it creates an opportunity for students to learn from one another and develop true understanding of others different from them. 

The opportunities of learning from living in a diverse community of learners brings me to the rest of our mission: “to become lifelong, active participants in their own education, develop a sense of self and community, and become responsible and compassionate members of society.” In these phrases, we articulate the values that we want to nurture in our students. I’ll speak to each one individually. 

TO BECOME LIFELONG, ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS IN THEIR OWN EDUCATION 

First “to become lifelong, active participants in their own education,” speaks to the skills of character, critical thinking, and problem solving that we want all students to develop. We live in a new knowledge economy in which information is superabundant, and in which our collective knowledge is growing exponentially. To face the problems in both their work and personal lives, our students are going to need to have the ability to keep up with that information growth. The research literature on the skills needed in the changing work force point to a group of critical thinking and problem solving skills including the ability to synthesize vast amounts of information, reason effectively, think creatively, and to be metacognitive.  Interestingly, this set of skills will benefit students in their chosen workplace, in their personal lives, and in their civic life because these are the skills of lifelong learners. 

TO DEVELOP A SENSE OF SELF AND COMMUNITY 

Which brings me to the phrase, “develop a sense of self and community.” Echoing the inscription at the Temple at Delphi, “know thyself,” the idea of self knowledge is primary for students as they negotiate the world in which they live and learn. Without a clear and positive conception of themselves, students will be unable to make choices that will lead to a successful life however they choose to define it. With this in mind, elementary and middle school function as a place where students can safely explore the many facets of their identity and their interests. At Two Rivers, we make an extra effort to expose students to new activities and ideas with the goal of expanding their potential interests.  These include our emphasis on the arts and Spanish, as well as our approach to instruction through hands-on inquiry based learning. 

We don’t rest with developing self-knowledge alone, but expand this to a sense of community. By embracing a view of community as a collective group of people bound together for a common purpose, community can be understood as our families, organizations that we belong to, our cities, our states, our country, the global community, and our schools. Understanding the multi-layered nature of community allows us to develop a far deeper appreciation for the interconnected nature of the world. This is no better exemplified than in our fourth grade expedition on the Anacostia Watershed where we explore ways to make the urban river ecosystem in which we live more sustainable for all the forms of life in our community and thus recognizing how small actions at home impact the broader community around us.

TO BECOME RESPONSIBLE AND COMPASSIONATE MEMBERS OF SOCIETY 

Finally, we end with the call to nurture our students to become responsible and compassionate members of society. Since opening Two Rivers, we have made the case that social learning is equally as important as academic learning and thus we have adopted the Responsive Classroom model from the Northeast Foundation for Children as a guiding structure for our social curriculum. What is increasingly clear is that this focus on teaching students to be kind and caring is not just about managing a warm and safe learning environment; it is also about teaching students the skills that they will need to succeed. In addition to critical thinking and problem solving skills, students must also learn the skills of effective communication and collaboration as well as develop strong habits of character. 

Specifically students must learn how to share vast amounts of information with each other, read non-verbal social cues, cultivate trust and respect, and negotiate outcomes if they are to collaborate effectively.   They also must learn how to stay motivated when faced with challenging tasks and pay attention to the quality of their work in developing their work habits. Educators have a responsibility for cultivating these skills and attitudes in their students. 

However, having effective communication and collaboration skills does not necessarily mean someone will be a responsible and compassionate member of society. Instead, there is an imperative in our final phrase to help students to take the knowledge of themselves and their communities and to reach out and use their knowledge for a greater purpose. Thus teaching students through authentic problems that face our communities, we work to nurture responsibility for the world around them and compassion for the other members of their community. 
These thoughts anchor my reading of our mission and make the mission more than words on a screen or on paper. The words give voice to my hopes and dreams for our school community and refocus my attention on what is most important in our work: the students. The words allow me to evaluate each decision that I make as an educator because as a mission-driven school everything that we do should be in service of nurturing our students. So I gladly return again and again to these words: 

To nurture a diverse group of students to become lifelong, active participants in their own education, develop a sense of self and community, and become responsible and compassionate members of society.