Our Vision

Students, educators, and communities partnering as agents of change to design:

Classrooms that empower
Schools that adapt
Systems that liberate

Our Mission

Highlander Institute partners with communities to imagine and create more equitable, relevant, and effective schools. Using research, we convene, coach, and build capacity to improve outcomes and experiences for all students.

Our Vision for Equity

Rooted in a recognition that systemic inequity undermines students’ natural competence and practice of freedom, educators work to restore this through a Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogical (CRSP) framework. They are engaged in deep awareness work to understand how they perpetuate inequities, and they work to leverage the cultural and linguistic practices of diverse learners to make learning more effective and relevant, to accelerate cognitive development, to foster cultural pluralism, and to empower students to employ their learning in ways that transform their lives, their communities, and society.

Our Approach

At Highlander Institute, we are committed to building student-centered, empowering schools that are anchored to components of anti-racist personalized learning. Within that effort, we believe that school partners in this effort benefit from a clear theory of change around both pedagogy and change management. Our approach addresses three universal educational challenges facing schools in the 21st century:

  • The inequities of school systems are becoming magnified. Student experiences, opportunities, and outcomes vary greatly between urban and suburban schools, as the “pedagogy of poverty” continues to be pervasive in urban classrooms. 
  • There is a growing disconnect between the traditional school model and the demands and opportunities of the evolving workplace 
  • School reform attempts typically produce a few model classrooms but an overwhelming lack of sustained positive change.

On the change management side, Highlander’s Pathways to Personalization Framework establishes a process for leaders to engage in personalized change management practices through strategies that value the voice, choice, pacing, and interests of school stakeholders. The framework was generated from our extensive field work over the past five years, breakthrough examples of personalized learning from across the country, and the wisdom of leaders in the field of lean startup methodology and improvement science research. Divided into five distinct implementation phases of plan, pilot, refine, grow, and network, the Pathway to Personalization Framework establishes a field guide for how teachers and leaders can move from a few model classrooms to a full school model of change. The model prioritizes community voice, consensus-building, alignment, leadership development, and the effective collection of data, building the capacity of school teams and district administrators to effectively lead a school change process. 

Our instructional approach is encapsulated in our Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Pedagogy (CRSP) Framework. Grounded in research, neuroscience, and the rationale of Zaretta Hammond, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Django Paris, our model highlights the importance of relationships, community building, developing student ownership, and cultivating higher-order thinking skills within an anti-racist approach that builds the capacity of teachers and students to disrupt inequitable systems and create more relevant and empowering learning environments. The CRSP theory of changes begins with Awareness; the focus then progresses to encompass classroom Community Building, and Cognitive Development, with the ultimate goal of developing Critical Consciousness in students. Defined as “the ability to recognize and analyze systems of inequality and the commitment to take action against these systems”, research has suggested that critical consciousness can be a gateway to academic motivation and achievement for marginalized students.  Professional learning opportunities within this model include opportunities for whole faculty engagement as well as embedded coaching for pilot teachers within identified strategy cycles. The CRSP implementation model examines observational data, lesson plans, student work, student perceptions, and use of instructional time to determine growth. 


While Highlander Institute offers multiple entry points for schools and districts interested in our change management process or instructional approach, our partnership with over 100 schools has demonstrated that the impact of our support increases when these two models are implemented together, when “early adopter” teachers are coached and supported with new classroom strategies, and when the work is adapted to meet the specific needs of school partners.

Our History

Highlander Institute is named after the Highlander Folk School, a social justice leadership training school and cultural center located in New Market, Tennessee known for its role during the Civil Rights Movement.  Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others were trained as activists at the center, returning with new skills to create change within their own communities.From this lineage, we believe that innovative educational practices are a catalyst for social change.

Founded in 1990 as Children of Promise, the Institute was more of an idea than an organization until 1999 when philanthropists David and Kim Dunn committed multi-year gifts to help the emergent Institute develop programs and expand services.

In 2005, a dynamic collaboration with Highlander Charter School in Rhode Island was the catalyst for our new mission-driven strategy of supporting “all kids”, expanding our target audience from students with diagnosed learning differences (LD) to all students. Recognizing that proven interventions for LD students are also effective for a large percentage of struggling students, we expanded programming for students, teachers and families.

In 2006, the launch of the Hasbro Center for Teaching Excellence (through generous multi-year support from Hasbro Children’s Fund) established the Institute as a credible regional provider of high quality professional development.

By 2011, Highlander Institute shifted again- this time, realizing that the dawn of new educational technology was opening the door for “blended” methods to reach all students. It was clear that the innovation in personalizing education was not only in the approach, but in the ability to utilize technology to scale the impact beyond a few rockstar teachers, lighthouse classrooms, or lab schools.

Today, Highlander Institute services are directed at improving education by focusing on the educator: providing unique, tailored, embedded supports at the classroom, school, and district levels. Highlander Institute specializes in blended and personalized learning models that are focused on creating equity through education. The Institute designs and implements proof-of-concept work, building not only the tools that enable districts to diagnose problems and design solutions from a student-centered perspective but also the capacity-building strategies that energize local educators to customize Institute knowledge and experience, mobilizing home-grown teams of personalized learning specialists.