Q&A with Jennifer Polexi

1. Describe the work you’ll be doing with Highlander Institute:
I will be working with Karina on the Fuse Architect Project centered around transforming the way 7 high schools use the blending learning model in their classrooms. Furthermore, I will keep The Highlander Institute abreast of policy issues that run through our local state house and the federal level.
2. What’s your background?
Graduating with a degree in English from the University of Florida, I used the background of my culturally themed literature classes to inform my work on social equity. Once I moved to Rhode Island, I commenced service in education where I worked as a College Adviser in a large urban high school in Pawtucket, named after former principal Charles E. Shea. The final days of my service years overlapped with the first days of my education in Urban Education Policy at Brown University.
3. What are you most looking forward to with this new position?
In this position, I look forward to being back in the schools, spending time quietly observing each layer of the school system. I hope to discover new truths that will further inform the direction I take in my work behind advocacy.
4. What’s your self professed super-power?
My self professed super-power is small talk and asking questions.
5. Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
In my perfect world, offices would be open and outdoors.

Q&A with Danielle Blasczak



1. Describe the work you’ll be doing with Highlander Institute:
I am the Research and Evaluation Manager in the Impact Office.  I hope to create an accessible data narrative for the Institute by coordinating analytic and reporting processes.
2. What’s your background?
Previous to this position I was the Assistant Director of Data and Research at the Center for Leadership and Educational Equity and worked as the TSLP Data Coach in the Providence Public School District. Previous to my career in educational data systems I worked in fundraising at Brown University and Rhode Island Public Radio.
3. What are you most looking forward to with this new position?
I am looking forward to helping Highlander improve upon the measurement systems and data collection systems that are in place, as well as organize and validate the information that has already been gathered.
4. What’s your self professed super-power?
Streamlining and Brevity!
5. Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
Stop by and say hello!


Q&A with Karina Rodruiguez

1. Describe the work you’ll be doing with Highlander Institute:
As part of the impact team, we aim to support, monitor, and learn from the different programs led by Highlander in order to strengthen our team’s influence and impact on our schools and teachers.
2. What’s your background?
Born and raised in New York City, I graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in Anthropology and received my masters from Brown University in Urban Education Policy. I have had great opportunities working and teaching students from the south side of Chicago and my hometown in Brooklyn. I previously interned at PPSD and the Ethnic Studies program assisting with the development of the program and its curriculum during their pilot year. I also worked with the New York office of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform as their Data and Research Analyst and worked alongside community organizations across the United States on projects around equity and culturally responsive education.
3. What are you most looking forward to with this new position?
With this position I hope to learn and grow with the educators in Rhode Island and support the different programs and efforts led by Highlander to support the teaching work force while promoting blended and personalized learning.
4. What’s your self professed super-power?
I have the innate ability to watch Netflix for hours on end. (Please don’t post that.)

Q&A with Malika Ali

1. Describe the work you’ll be doing with Highlander Institute:
As an Educational Strategies Specialist, I will be collaborating on project implementation and coaching support for Fuse Architect schools.
2. What’s your background?
Most recently, I was an innovation specialist for academic programs for the Providence Public School District. Prior to that, I was a founding science teacher at one of Rhode Island’s first blended learning high schools where I learned a great deal about the opportunities and challenges associated with school-wide and network-wide implementation. And in another life I was involved in public health/biology research. I’ve lived in Rhode Island for 13 years but was born and raised in Oklahoma where my parents immigrated to from Eritrea.
3. What are you most looking forward to with this new position?
I believe the most important lever of change is at the classroom level so I’m really looking forward to getting back into schools and working with teachers and school teams to put their plans into action.
4. What’s your self professed super-power?
I can easily make chocolate disappear
5. Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
My people invented coffee. You’re welcome.

Q&A with Vera De Jesus

Describe the work you’ll be doing with Highlander Institute:
As an Educational Strategies Specialist, I support teachers and school leaders in achieving their blended and personalized learning goals.


What’s your background?
Most recently, I taught 8th grade math at a public charter school in Central Falls, where I was previously an AmeriCorps Education Fellow. In between the fellowship and teaching, I pursued my MAT at Brown University. Prior to starting a career in education, I studied journalism and psychology in Boston and worked in corporate communications.


What are you most looking forward to with this new position?
I’m really looking forward to collaborating with educators across Rhode Island as we work together to create classroom experiences that serve and engage all learners. I’m excited to be working with passionate people who truly believe in educational equity, and I’m eager to learn from my new team!


What’s your self professed super-power?
I can describe food with impeccable precision.


Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
 Nothing in mind right now, but feel free to strike up a conversation anytime!

International Workers Day

International Worker’s Day

Today – and every day – we stand up proudly and in solidarity for the working families of the students we serve.

May Day has always been tied to immigrant communities because of the population’s contributions to the US economy. In Providence alone, 25 % of our student population are English language learners.

At Highlander Institute, we understand the challenge of our district partners to serve and serve well our rapidly changing, diverse student population. We believe in the power of our teachers, students and families to honor these diverse backgrounds in order to create a more globally-minded community. Our immigrant roots as a city and state are vital to our community’s success.

This year, we support International Worker’s Day. We are committed to an equitable education system that meets the needs all students. Our work is based on creating opportunities for students to reach their full potential despite socioeconomic barriers. We share this vision for all communities and our country. The communities and students we serve are achieving great things!

Join us today at Burnside Park to celebrate working class solidarity. For more information on locally sponsored events, check out this page.

International Women's Day/A Day Without A Woman

On March 8, 2017, Highlander Institute is working in limited capacity due to our support and participation in the Day Without A Women/ International Women’s Strike.


This day is a recognition of the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system — and the pervasive and systemic gender-based inequalities that still exist within our society, from the wage gap, to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity.


In education, women face persistent wage differentials. Varied concentrations of women in leadership roles across schools and districts have resulted in earnings that are consistently 20% lower than that of men in the educational sector. In higher education especially, women accounted for just 26% of college presidencies, with people of color accounting for only 14%.  


This differential plays out in many forms- what is valued, taught and measured within the educational system is directly tied to power and privilege.  


We work each day to create equitable, just educational systems that meet the needs of all students in this complex world.  To this end, educational systems must be representative of all genders, races, ethnicities, religions, and orientations at all roles of leadership.  We believe that you can’t be what you can’t see.
We realize that as a nonprofit organization, we have tremendous privilege in terms of scheduling and supporting events like today. Women across many sectors (including education) and those in our most vulnerable communities will not have the ability to join the strike today.


We strike for them.

Q&A With Nick Vockerodt

Meet the newest member of our team, Nick Vockerodt!


Describe the work you’ll be doing with Highlander: 

I am joining Highlander as the Research and Evaluation Analyst. I will be working in the office of the Director of Data and Analytics, helping to build instruments that will ease the process of data collection, synthesis and reporting for new and ongoing projects at the Institute.

What’s your background? 

I have worked in schools almost entirely since 2007, with time spent as the founding Director of a 21st CCLC program, teachers assistant and middle school teacher. Somewhere in those years I earned a masters in urban education policy and have also worked freelance on a number of education related projects at the school, state and district level.

What are you most looking forward to with this new position?

There are a lot of great things happening in Rhode Island schools, and there is more that we can learn about from other places. I really look forward to turning information we gather into useful tools that help students and teachers. I am also really excited about the idea of including local and regional partners as full-time members in our public K-12 experience and developing processes that can improve their impact on the outcomes of students, schools and communities.

What’s your self professed superpower?

I can disappear and reappear.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

Too many! Its busy out there.

We Have Lift-off!

Ah Summer! What could be better than relaxing on the beach, searching for Pokemon, and reflecting on the 2015-2016 school year.  We had time to review new research in the field of blended and personalized learning, and organize best practices related to professional development. We are always pushing ourselves to get better at what we do, and we are dedicated to partnering with teachers to improve the impact of classroom instruction. Much of our summer work focused on teachers and how we might better match our coaching approach to individual teacher needs.  

Through our work, we understand that the teachers we coach may be in very different places, and at varying states of readiness in regard to implementing blended learning. Just as with students, a ‘one size fits all’ approach leaves some teachers behind. With that in mind, at the Highlander Institute, we design our professional development and coaching models to include scaffolded and differentiated adult learning opportunities. This is where coaching model comes in.  We want to share this approach with you all, as our commitment and belief in open source materials drives us to create systems in partnership with teachers, district administrators, community organizations and students alike. Check it out here!

In the early stages of coaching, especially with teachers new to blended and personalized instructional approaches, we work hard to develop relationships and employ a gradual release model. We begin by providing context for the work, including a close look at effective blended classrooms. Seeing the power of blended and personalized learning firsthand is one of the best catalysts we’ve found for motivating newcomers. Once teachers develop a mindset for this work and have a willingness to move forward, we implement a co-plan/co-teach model.

We join the teacher in thinking through components of a blended classroom, highlighting teacher-specific strengths and challenges. We are there to share classroom responsibilities, troubleshoot technology problems, and act as thought partners as teachers roll out their first blended and personalized lessons. As teachers become more comfortable with this approach, a specific plan is followed to transfer the management of the classroom back to the teacher. Once the teacher is managing all aspects of a blended model we shift our work to focus exclusively on coaching through an observation and feedback loop.   

This is going to be a big year for the teachers we partner with as they embrace a new model of teaching and learning. As we develop systems for classroom and district change-making, we invite you all to let us know what you think!  


Kara O’Connell  is the Director of Implementation at the Highlander Institute.  She manages a team of Educational Strategies Specialists that deliver coaching and consulting services in Rhode Island and beyond. To see more of our work, follow Kara on Twitter @KaraLOConnell