We’re Rebranding!

A Letter from Highlander Institute & Highlander Charter School Leadership:

After 18 years of our evolving partnership, Highlander Charter School and Highlander Institute have decided to move forward as two independent organizations.

This summer, Highlander Institute will be announcing our exciting new name and visual identity!

Highlander Institute and Highlander Charter School have shared a deep connection to centering students, creating engaging classrooms, and empowering individual learners. We have also shared social justice as a core value, symbolized in our names through a joint reference to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, paying tribute to their ongoing legacy.

As the first independent public charter school in Rhode Island, the Highlander Charter School has been an incredible partner and lab school for the Institute team. The partnership built on the Charter School’s mission to serve as a catalyst for social change, and its vision to design and provide research-based quality education opportunities to all learners. Both organizations shared a deep commitment to providing all children the opportunity and support necessary to meet their full potential.

The Institute’s growth and evolution was made possible by the Highlander Charter School Board. Their decision to merge the organizations in 2006 solidified the Institute’s standing and paved the way for our future as an organization capable of making a significant impact both locally and nationally. Over the past 18 years, Highlander Institute programming has shifted from a focus on literacy to education technology to personalized learning to our current model supporting Culturally Responsive School Change. We have consistently prioritized student-centered learning outcomes, innovation, community engagement, and improving student and family experiences at school.

This throughline continues to provide the foundation for our frameworks around instructional equity, inclusive change management, and liberatory data. We are proud to share that our partnerships are currently generating our most compelling student and teacher outcomes ever — particularly for historically marginalized student populations.

While 2023 will be our last year as Highlander Institute, our talented team and our approach to strengthening education systems will remain intact. We will launch our independent organization with all of the empathy, creativity, and impact that our stakeholders have come to associate with our work. Stay tuned for our big name announcement! And if you’re not already a newsletter subscriber, sign up now to stay informed.

Highlander Charter School and the rebranded Highlander Institute will keep growing, learning, and improving to better serve our communities. As independent organizations, we welcome this next chapter as a chance to redefine how we will continue to collaborate and support each other in the future.


Rose Mary Grant & the Highlander Charter School Team
Shawn Rubin & the Highlander Institute Team

Learn more about how Highlander Institute’s Culturally Responsive School Change model can generate more equitable outcomes for your school.

Scaling For Impact: Highlander Institute Goes to Harvard

During the first week of March, a five-member team from Highlander Institute attended the Scaling For Impact program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Over the course of three days, 18 teams in the education space from across the country came together to discuss case studies, explore frameworks and guidance for scaling, pitch our work and receive feedback, and hear from expert faculty and advisors. This was the first time the program has been held since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the palpable energy and excitement of the in-person learning experience was electric. In reflecting on this experience, our team highlighted the following takeaways:

Investing in Deep Work IS Scale

Prior to this experience, when hearing the word “scale”, our minds typically jumped to the idea of expanding our work to more schools, more students, and more geographies. But as Chris Dede framed for us in his session, the education system is not like a fast food franchise, and people are not french fries. In many instances, focusing on implementing your model in depth through aligned, multi-year partnerships is a dimension of scale in its own right, preparing you to meet the needs of a local context.

Our Culturally Responsive School Change Model has been evolving, becoming more comprehensive since 2019. The disruptions brought on by the pandemic shifted our capacity but did not shift our values and our commitment to centering student experiences, shifting instruction through an instructional equity lens, and elevating stakeholder voices in decision-making. And as showcased in our 2022 Annual Report, this model is working, with our most successful stories of impact yet. Our approach is complex and purposefully aims to work amidst multiple layers (classroom, school, district, student, family, and community). It felt exciting to see this vision validated as we continue to build momentum.

Stories Bridge the Individual Why with Collective Care

One of the strongest rationales for any nonprofit’s work can be found in stories of how the work is experienced by individuals. Within our partner schools, stories help teachers understand how our professional learning may feel, the insights that might be gained, and the impact that is possible — and build excitement for implementation. Stories of students help us test our assumptions and stay focused on the student experience. If we don’t explain our services rooted in these stories, we’re missing a crucial opportunity for connection with people who are hearing about Highlander Institute for the first time.

The very human nature of the field of education makes storytelling an even more compelling conduit between the realities of today and the possibilities of tomorrow. As Irvin Scott emphasized in his talk during the Harvard program, successful organizations have a collective story, and ensure that all members see themselves in the organization’s mission and vision. We are excited to spend time over the coming months to infuse more storytelling into our professional learning services, communications work, presentations, and meetings.

Critical Friends are Invaluable

By creating opportunities to pitch ideas and receive feedback, Scaling for Impact reinforced the importance of external stakeholder perspectives. We were matched with a faculty advisor (shout out to the thoughtful guidance of Brittany Tabor Butler) who joined our conversations all three days and asked probing questions to clarify and push our thinking. After sharing our theory of change (day 1), our organizational identity (day 2), and our next steps action plan (day 3), we heard warm and cool feedback from fellow teams grappling with similar tasks. It was a powerful reminder that our team, who is so authentically invested in our work, should also remember to step back and ask others: What’s resonating? What’s missing or confusing? How can we continue to improve?

Members of Highlander Institute meet with their faculty advisor, Brittany Tabor Butler, during a Scaling For Impact Team Time session.

The Highlander Institute team is privileged to work with an amazing group of committed school partners who are deeply invested in our school change model and have been instrumental in helping us refine and improve. The work is challenging, and every time we are pushed to clarify our rationale, evidence base, objective — or co-design a way through systemic barriers — we become better equipped to support sustainable school change.

We are grateful for the incredible opportunity the Scaling for Impact retreat provided, and are eager to continue to embed these focus areas in our daily work streams. For more information about the program, please explore Scaling For Impact: Strategies to Enhance and Expand What Works in Education.

A608 After Hours Podcast Episode featuring Malika Ali

A608 After Hours Podcast

Malika Ali joined hosts Uche Amaechi and Monica C. Higgins for the January 26, 2023 episode of A608 After Hours, a podcast from the Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Learning Course out of Harvard University.

The podcast aims to bring voices from the field into the classroom to inspire, inform and ignite leadership dedicated to wrestling with today’s stacked challenges. Each week they interview a guest that is doing this important work and discuss how course concepts come to life in the field. Guests span multiple roles across different sectors and institutions, and come from varied backgrounds.

Click here to listen to the full episode.

from the episode

Exciting Work We’re Supporting in Schools

“We know from the research that kids in identity-safe classrooms who feel a sense of trust and belonging do better, their outcomes improve…It’s not just about a toolbox of strategies anymore. It’s really connecting to our kids’ humanity, allowing them to feel seen, understood, and valued, and to understand that we’re all in this together.” 

– Malika Ali, 1-26-23 Episode, A608 After Hours Podcast

On Education & Purpose

“Education is not just a path to social mobility or a way out of poverty. It is about wonder, curiosity, seeing the beauty in the world, and making the world better by improving our own surroundings.

We are a team of learners, not just in service of the task at hand, but because there are so many beautiful things in the world to learn about. We nurture that at Highlander Institute, and that translates into our work with schools, districts, and kids.”

– Malika Ali


Malika Ali is passionate about community-driven change management to scale and sustain culturally responsive education driven by a liberatory data approach. As Chief Innovation Officer at Highlander Institute, Malika leads program visioning articulated through a comprehensive model for school change. She was a Rhode Island District Teacher of the Year, served on Governor Raimondo’s STEAM & Equity in Educator Preparation and was named one of the nation’s top emerging and inspirational Black leaders in edtech by LearnLaunch. As a daughter of strong and brilliant Eritrean refugees, she has spent her life critiquing the systems that perpetuate educational inequity and is proud to be part of the struggle to ensure that all children have access to and can take advantage of an empowering education.

Windows and Mirrors: Malika Ali featured on Education Suspended Podcast

Education Suspended: Windows & Mirrors with Malika Ali

Malika Ali joined hosts Jessica Pfeiffer and Steve Graner for Episode 49 of Education Suspended, a podcast focused on exploring, engaging, and dialoguing with those in education who are passionate about changing the status quo and evolving the archaic system we have inherited.

The podcast explores Malika’s transgenerational story, which is rooted in the pursuit of education and drives her own desire to empower students. Malika discusses the importance of instruction that is relevant to students and curriculum that provides both windows and mirrors — for students to see themselves in lessons and better understand how they fit into the world.

from the episode

Defining Relevance

“Relevance is about: 1) Not just having the learning be abstract; and 2) Not just centered on dominant groups…We have everyone look at their curriculum, audit it for relevance, see does it affirm student identities and elevate non-dominant perspectives, and create space for students to have the windows (to see other cultures and ways of being) and mirrors (to see themselves reflected in the curricula).” 

– Malika Ali, Episode 49: Windows and Mirrors, Education Suspended Podcast

How to Design More Equitable Schools

“I believe that communities have the power and capacity within them to successfully and effectively solve whatever challenges come up. We need to build the spaces for them to collaborate, to learn, to design, to do, and to lead. The more those spaces exist, the more we see innovative, relevant, meaningful change happen for school communities by school communities. I love that concept of ‘nothing about us without us’. So we never want to be coming in saying ‘this is what people should do’. We can come in and bring resources, tools, research, and support. We can empower and provide spaces of learning and in facilitating that, find that the brilliance is there – and it’s always been there. People just want the spaces to talk.”

– Malika Ali

About Malika

Malika is passionate about community-driven change management to scale and sustain culturally responsive education driven by a liberatory data approach. As the Chief Innovation Officer at Highlander Institute, she leads program visioning articulated through a comprehensive model for school change. She was a Rhode Island District Teacher of the Year, served on Governor Raimondo’s STEAM and Equity in Educator Preparation Committee, and was named one of the nation’s top emerging and inspirational Black leaders in education innovation by Learn Launch. Malika holds an M.Ed. in Education Policy and Management from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a B.A. in Public Health from Brown University.

As a daughter of strong and brilliant Eritrean refugees, Malika has spent her life critiquing the systems that perpetuate educational inequity, and she is proud to be a part of the struggle to ensure that all children have access to, and can take advantage of, an empowering education.

Teacher Appreciation Week 2023

Thank You! Teacher Appreciation Week 2023

The spring season evokes feelings of hope, growth, and renewal. Just as the weather brings the healing energy of sunshine, Teacher Appreciation Week reminds us of the power of shining a light to express gratitude for the amazing individuals supporting and encouraging students every day.

When we asked the Highlander Institute team to reflect on what teachers mean to them, a few key themes emerged. Read on to discover the sentiments from our staff members and be sure to thank a teacher in your life today!

Personal Memories

My favorite teachers will be part of me forever. While I would be hard pressed to remember any of the content they taught me, whenever I sit down to work through a challenge, I still feel their encouragement and belief in my abilities. I will always be grateful for their most important lessons — how to be resilient, how to learn from my mistakes, and how to demonstrate love and care for the people in my world.

Cathy Sanford, Director of Communications


During Teacher Appreciation Week, I always think back to those who have impacted my life through their transformative teaching. I will always feel grateful to my high school English teacher who opened our eyes and connected us to so many aspects of the human experience, all while being incredibly cool, interesting, and relatable. Instead of always assigning papers, she often had us respond to texts through art, music, and other creative forms of expression. We analyzed The Stranger by Albert Camus by listening to music by The Cure. My friend and I even got to write and perform a song about Grendel (the beast from Beowulf) in front of our whole class. She showed me a deep love of the profession and of students that sticks with me still.

Stephanie Castilla, Director of Systems


Teacher Qualities & Characteristics

Encouraging | Supportive | Inspiring | Nurturing. Thank YOU to all the teachers who pour their hearts into their job, day in and day out. You are making a difference. You are valued. You are appreciated!

Cindy Kenney, Executive Assistant


Members of the teaching profession embody the term ‘lifelong learner’. Teachers are constantly pushing their thinking, sharing ideas, and celebrating others (their students, their colleagues, their school leaders) — continuing to offer free trainings and host events to shine a light. Thank you to all of the teachers who model a sense of curiosity and dedicate their energy to uplifting the education community, especially during times of dissent and challenge.

Maeve Murray, Communications Manager


Teachers are crucial to understanding data through a liberatory lens. You bring us the context, insights, and valuable anecdotes we need to develop a holistic view of student experiences beyond test results. Thank you!

Rebecca Roberts, Data Analyst


Grade Level, School, & Partner Shout-Outs

This year I have spent a lot of time with teachers of our youngest learners in Pre-K and kindergarten classrooms. Most of these children were born during or right before the pandemic and early grades teachers are moving mountains to get them the skills and support they need for a successful K-12 experience. This Teacher Appreciation Week, we are are truly grateful to our early childhood educators!

Shawn Rubin, Executive Director


Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to all of our partners. Every day you choose to stand for equity. Thank you for being the change we wish to see in the world!

Michaelle Larracuente, Director of Program & Implementation


I would like to send deep appreciation and gratitude to all the educators I work with. I have learned so much with you and from you this year. I see ALL of your hard work and dedication to your schools, students, and families. I am uplifted and inspired by your creativity and caring for kids every time I enter your buildings.

Shout out to: Bernon Heights & Kevin K. Coleman Elementary Schools (Woonsocket); Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (Providence); Willett Early Childhood Center (Norwood); Early Childhood Center, Thornton, Sarah Dyer Barnes, Winsor Hill, & Brown Avenue Elementary Schools (Johnston); Pell Elementary School & Rogers High School (Newport)!

Heidi Vazquez, Instructional Equity Partner


Celebrating Black History Month 2023

Black History Month 2023

Our instructional equity framework begins with Awareness because we are committed to continually deepening our understanding of ourselves, the world around us, and the forces that have shaped where we are now. This work is not possible without acknowledging the dominant narratives influencing our curriculum and teaching practices. Whose stories are told? Whose voices are elevated and celebrated? Whose histories remain hidden? When certain perspectives are not included, what messages does that send? 


One way we are celebrating Black History Month is by diving into resources that help us expand our awareness, exploring Black stories of past, present, and future. This spirit of relearning is something we can carry with us year-round.

  • MasterClass has made its Black History: The History You Weren’t Taught in School course free for the entire month of February. Watch video lectures from historians, authors, and activists. 
  • ARD continues its annual tradition of highlighting 28 Days of Black History. If you’re interested in learning how you can support equity and social justice in your daily life, consider subscribing to their regular year-long newsletter as well.
  • The 1619 Project is now available to view as a docuseries on Hulu. Originally a publication from The New York Times by Nikole-Hannah Jones, the content has been reimagined and expanded into a six-episode program. Be sure to check out the viewing guide on the accompanying education materials website. 


Amidst another challenging school year, stress and feelings of burnout are natural. Education is one layer of a system designed to be inequitable, and the work of disruption can be both inspiring and draining. We recognize that this work places a particular burden on Black minds and bodies. Who in our society can access the privilege of rest and recovery? How can we meet this moment in ways that fill us up and renew our sense of purpose?

This Black History Month, we turn to the work of Tricia Hersey, founder of The Nap Ministry. In her book, Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto, Hersey encourages us to reframe our relationship to productivity, reassess what makes us feel whole, and embrace the revolutionary power of rest as we work toward a more just world. For this week’s theme, join us by exploring the resources below from Black creatives, activists, and speakers. Please reach out to share any ideas we might have missed:

Rhode Island

We would be remiss if we did not shine a spotlight on our home state. We encourage you to check out the resources below featuring local history and incredible members of our Rhode Island education community.