The Power of Community: Riverview Charter School

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Compiled from an interview with AnnMarie Bowden, Coordinator of Curriculum and Instruction at Riverview Charter School

When educators at Riverview Charter School in Beaufort, South Carolina, describe the school’s belief that a small group of citizens can change the world, they know what they’re talking about. Founded in 2009 as the first charter school in Beaufort County, Riverview was created by a small group of committed parents who hoped to establish a school of choice for Beaufort County. More than a decade later, its empha­sis on the power of community has only deepened. Riverview embodied this belief when the school community began a deep dive into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to ensure that its warm community is a place where all of its members feel a genuine sense of safety, significance, and belonging.

Curriculum Leader AnnMarie Bowden explains: “When par­ents, educators, and community members visit the school for the first time, we often get comments like ‘It feels differ­ent here,’ ‘Everyone seems so happy,’ or ‘Your school has such a good vibe.’ The feedback is so consistent that we have de­cided Riverview has a ‘happiness advantage’—a phrase coined by positive psychologist Shawn Achor for people who active­ly work to maintain a positive mindset.” Even with this strong foundation of a positive school culture, Bowden reports that teachers and school leaders began asking a fundamental ques­tion: “Do our Black and Brown students experience our school culture differently? And the answer most certainly is ‘yes.’”

At the end of second grade, students complete their first learning cycle. To celebrate this milestone, students explore their local ecosystem in a two-day capstone trip to Seabrook Island.

While Riverview’s student body is diverse, the school staff is predominantly white, so many students don’t see themselves reflected in the teachers and leaders of their school. In addi­tion, Riverview students, and students in many schools across the country, do not see nearly enough of themselves in the books they read or the history they learn. The racial inequi­ties that became a national conversation in 2020 brought these disparities into sharper relief for the Riverview community and made teachers and school leaders even more motivated to rec­ognize their own biases and create a joyful, inclusive, and cul­turally responsive school climate for all students and families.

Riverview has embraced the guiding principles of Responsive Classroom since the school’s inception, and many proactive as­pects of social-emotional learning and community building are already ingrained. For instance, every student is greeted by name as they arrive each day by the teachers and staff members, who open car doors, meet students at classroom doors, and line the hallways to welcome students. Notes Bowden, “Our goal is that no matter how a stu­dent’s morning may have started, when they get to Riverview, we are going to hit the reset button and have a fresh, positive start.” Riverview teachers re­quest arrival duty because it creates a fun and pos­itive start to the day for adults and students alike.

Responsive Classroom practices are apparent throughout the school, and they are part of the daily lives of both students and teachers. Morn­ing Meeting is a cornerstone of each day during the school year and beyond. In addition to the daily Morning Meetings that teachers hold with their students, faculty and staff also gather for Morning Meetings to start each day of profes­sional development before the school year begins. Those meetings set the stage for the year togeth­er and help teachers recommit to the goals they share for their school community. “Our job is to create a learning community where its members feel safe, joyful, and significant,” says Bowden.

Riverview teachers carefully design learning spaces that are warm and inviting and that make learning visible. Teachers structure routines to uphold consistent expectations and work with students to reach consensus on classroom agree­ments. Daily, shared planning time for grade-level teaching teams is built into the schedule so teach­ers can connect and collaborate. Riverview is guided by eight core values—cooperation, per­severance, empathy, mindfulness, gratitude, stewardship, integrity, and optimism—that influ­ence all aspects of the school. One of the many ways these core values are animated is through the curriculum’s service learning component, which includes shared whole-school projects and grade-level class projects and encourages stu­dents to become responsible citizens and take an active role in making the world a better place.

Having proactive, foundational practices in place to build and maintain a healthy school culture is vi­tal, but the leaders at Riverview knew they needed to do more. With this in mind, they have focused on professional development in DEI to educate their teachers and inspire ongoing dialogue in their community. “It’s really important that our staff begin to look inward and reflect on the inherent biases that lurk within us all in order to build our capacity to be more culturally responsive educators,” Bowden explains.

Riverview began with two and a half days of antiracism training to help recognize how conscious and unconscious biases and mi­croaggressions might play out in their class­rooms. The school also invested in the Re­sponsive Classroom Elementary Core Course or Middle School Course for leadership, teachers, specialists, and counselors. These four-day professional development courses will help Riverview educators begin this crit­ical school year with a pos­itive mindset and deepen their dedication to creat­ing a safe, joyful, inclusive, and responsive learning environment. Looking at the Responsive Classroom practices through a DEI lens will help all the educa­tors at Riverview enhance their practice, Bowden believes, adding: “We are thrilled that RC is willing to work with us to pose questions during our training and challenge our staff to think deeply and bring self-awareness.”

During literacy rotations, Riverview students have the opportunity to read with a partner.

As the Riverview leadership further explores social-emotional learning through contin­ued Responsive Classroom training, they are ensuring that their teachers and students will have daily reinforcement built into their school community. They are implementing an SEL team to support teachers and students as they use SEL practices, including mindful­ness, brain breaks, and peace-out places. The SEL team will maintain a safe space where students can take a break and where staff can help them reset, discuss and learn from any mistakes, and return to the classroom. Dis­ciplinary practices in schools can often be a source of inequity, so employing restorative, nonpunitive approaches is a crucial step toward a healthy, safe school community.

In keeping with Riverview’s belief in the power of a small group to effect real change, educators will not shy away from talking to their students about challenging and rele­vant topics such as systemic racism and ad­dressing one’s own biases. Riverview educa­tors strive to introduce students to a broad range of historical and cultural experiences that emphasize the importance of multiple perspectives and then use students’ under­standing of differences to teach social justice through age-appropriate literature, news media and stories, and antibias lessons. The goal is to teach history in a way that allows students to see them­selves as a part of a shared past and understand that by learning from that past, they are better po­sitioned to change the future. Teachers are en­couraged to read from di­verse books in their class­rooms and to talk about race, equity, and inclusion in connection with those texts. These discussions won’t only be confined to academic spaces. Teach­ers hope to include DEI topics in Morning Meet­ings and Responsive Ad­visory Meetings as well. To enhance these essential curricular initiatives, Riverview leadership provided each teacher with $500 to include more culturally diverse read­ing materials in their classroom libraries. The school is also purchasing more inclu­sive titles for their guided reading libraries.

Change starts small. One of the most ef­fective ways to ensure that practices and initiatives take root in a school is for the adults in the community to model those choices, like collaborating, participating in challenging conversations, and showing empathy for others. Reflecting and taking action within a community like Riverview Charter School is a powerful place to start.