Critical Work at a Critical Time: Shawn Rubin Named Executive Director of Highlander Institute

Critical Work at a Critical Time: Shawn Rubin Named Executive Director of Highlander Institute


Shawn Rubin, Executive Director

My favorite job ever was teaching kindergarten at Highlander Charter School. Each day we began our morning meeting criss-cross on the floor in a circle sharing something important from our lives or something we were excited about for the day. A circle share is such a simple activity. Still, it allowed me to get to know each child in my classroom deeply, and it allowed my students to find areas of overlap and shared interest, which helped build a strong culture of safety and respect that carried through the entire school year. Most educators want what’s best for the students in front of them, but sometimes we miss the mark because we prioritize the wrong things. For me, it was knowing that my students felt known as the individuals they were, not the test scores or designations we applied to them. For me, the number one benchmark for success was that my students felt safe, cared for and that they were essential members of our classroom community. When I focused here, my students found success across all content areas as it profoundly improved their social and emotional wellbeing.

In the ten years since I transitioned out of kindergarten and teaching to focus on professional learning and change management at Highlander Institute, I have never forgotten the lessons I learned in kindergarten. 

With these lessons top of mind, I accepted the honor and responsibility of serving as Highlander Institute’s new Executive Director. Our vision at Highlander Institute is for all students to learn in classrooms that empower within schools that adapt under systems that liberate. My goal is to make Highlander Institute a leading design and implementation partner for any school or district interested in scaling those same feelings for students that I was focused on in my kindergarten classroom; safety, a caring community of learners, and a deep sense of belonging to a learning community. Once we establish these core needs within any learning environment, we can support teachers in building students’ academic mindset and critical consciousness so they will grow into leaders and change agents in their own communities. 

Right now, students and educators are navigating significant challenges. Leaders are scrambling to fill vacancies and navigate a system in crisis. I see Highlander Institute as a critical partner at this critical time. We have a proven track record of supporting schools through intense, long-term, and collaborative work, which is precisely what will be required for us to rebuild our education system with meaningful improvements for students and families who have been systematically and historically marginalized for generations. 

We want to do more than just recover from this pandemic. We want to rebuild in a way that doesn’t just benefit the wealthy and privileged. To do this, we will need teachers and leaders who see the complete picture of how systemic inequity plays itself out in our hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, and classrooms. We need stronger awareness of how our behaviors, especially when we are predominantly white staff working within majority Black and Brown communities, can exacerbate academic struggle and alienate families if we are not aware of exactly how inequity manifests within k-12 education.

As I move into this new role, I am struggling against my own biases and blindspots. As an able-bodied, cis, white man born into one of the world's wealthiest nations, I have tremendous privilege. I want to be called out and held accountable for the vision we’ve created as an organization. I want us to be true partners with school leaders and the communities they serve. We must spread and scale equitable practices throughout our buildings and districts, and to make this happen, we must do more co-constructing of solutions and measures with students and families. Our commitment is to work with communities to design spaces that have high expectations without sacrificing the feeling of belonging. We know a better pathway forward awaits us as we slowly emerge from this pandemic together. As I take on this role as a permanent position, I am committed to support our team to meet this critical moment. 

Will you join us in our efforts to reimagine a more just and equitable education system for all learners?

Time for Transition: A Look Back at a Leadership Journey

Time for Transition: A Look Back at a Leadership Journey


Shawn Rubin, Executive Director

I have started the process of transitioning out of Highlander Institute.

In 2006, I took a one-year leave of absence from my PhD program in anthropology to complete a new Masters program just starting off at Brown University, bringing me back home to my native Rhode Island. I wanted to put my social sciences training into action - learning and doing on the programmatic side rather than the academic. That was a tough year, and I was completely out of my element, questioning everything. I was placed in an internship within the back office of a small social justice-oriented school and its sister nonprofit, where I spent my year generally staying out of everyone’s way, stapling conference programs together, attempting (and failing) countless homework problem sets, and drafting a plan for an eventual high school expansion. 

Fifteen years later and I am still here. From intern to Executive Director. From a small team, good gut instincts, and a host of ideas, I’ve learned to lead a nimble learning organization and engage as a community partner ready and committed to creating more equitable, relevant, and effective schools.

Along the way, I got married, bought a house, had two kids, became a foster parent, brought two more kids into our family, bought a bigger house to accommodate said expansion, played countless band gigs, and joined life-giving and interesting boards, committees, and panel discussions. Sometimes, these worlds have unapologetically collided, like the time my activist street band played at a local drag show the same night as Highlander Institute’s national Blended and Personalized Learning Conference. It’s safe to say that I’ve danced and laughed more than any other organizational leader I know. 

I’ve pitched ideas to state leaders, poking holes in systems and filling the gaps. I’ve sat at tables with community members and national leaders. I’ve shown up, spoken up, learned and questioned some more. I’ve commiserated and eye-rolled with the best of them. Chances are, we’ve done these things together - and kept moving forward on behalf of educators, students, and families.   

Over the years I've dreamed about getting the Institute to a place where it was strong and sustainable and I was confident that I had contributed as much as I could. The last few years brought a whole set of unforeseen opportunities and challenges, which made it harder to know when I should step down.

But as we emerge from this worldwide crisis, it feels like the right time. We’ve literally done it all. I’ve done it all. I’ve left it all out there on the field. I believe that my work here has gone as far as I can take it and it is time for new leadership.  

This transition is completely driven by me. This is something I am choosing for many reasons. The first is my need for some space and time - to breathe and reflect on the whirlwind of 2020 and 2021 and the effort it takes to stay afloat personally and professionally each day as a leader, mother, spouse, daughter, friend, colleague, and ally. Closely following this is the belief that I am a full, whole human being with untapped potential that goes beyond whatever role I currently hold. 

Last spring, I coauthored a statement with Shawn Rubin, then our Chief Education Officer, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Shawn and I made a public commitment to the work we would do to dismantle white supremacy culture. We outlined the steps we would take, which included the statement “cede power”. 

I’ve taken those two words to task this year. Through personal and professional DEI training and reflection, I’ve learned to step aside and make space. I’ve prioritized the expertise of BIPOC colleagues. I have not made a single decision in isolation since that statement was issued. This also meant rebuilding our COVID-wracked organization with co-construction and ‘rebuilding days’, committees, and workgroups, ensuring shared ownership and input in our model. 

I’ve attempted to show up from a place of  inquiry versus my usual advocacy. I’ve developed the muscle and habit of asking questions and truly listening to answers, thoughts, opinions, comments, and feedback. Maybe this operating model would have started sooner if my time and energy weren’t so focused on the scarcity complex that afflicts most nonprofit cultures. I wonder if organizations would be more inclusive and collaborative if decisions weren’t driven by survival funding and urgency?  

Speaking directly to the funder community: thank you for your support over the last decade. We’ve been lucky to work closely and for long periods of time with some incredible philanthropies that believe in our approach to develop self-directed, empowered critical thinkers while building toward transformational and sustainable school change. You know who you are. You’ve buoyed us in moments of crisis and coached us to stay on track.  

But on a larger level, we’ve also experienced the tumultuous world of philanthropy to the extent that it has directly impacted our work and relationships with educators, schools, districts, and state agencies as well as our internal organizational psyche. We’ve felt pressure to pivot, implement, and pivot again to meet changing interests with silver bullets. Educators and systems are left with feelings of initiative overload as the funder world looks for case studies of positive impact. The nature of perceived scant resources creates an unhealthy competition that pits organizations like ours against each other in a way that seems counterproductive to the broader work we are all mission-driven to support.   

With each misstep and miscalculation, our exceptional team and colleagues in the field continue to persevere. My greatest accomplishment has been the people I’ve chosen to surround myself with and learn from every single day.  

To the educators and leaders: our goals and objectives have always been to create classrooms, schools, and systems that best meet the individual needs of each learner by supporting educators in their practice. This intensive level of professional development and systems change requires a significant school presence, a comprehensive understanding of each teacher’s implementation level, and strong, trusting relationships with teachers, school leaders, and district administrators as they step outside their comfort zones.  

The close study of our partnerships both before and during COVID has led us to understand traditional change management approaches as the central threat to scaling messier, more complicated student and community-focused school change initiatives. Our experience has shown that across partnerships of all sizes and shapes, a central challenge has emerged in the implementation of new teaching and learning models: the effort oftentimes does not spread beyond model classrooms established by highly talented teachers.  

So, what happens next? 

There continues to be an incredible learning opportunity offered up by this unprecedented situation. Collective realizations about change, support, accountability, engagement, mindset, equity, and values through this time have the potential to have a lasting impact on K-12 education.   

In terms of the Institute, I am thrilled by our leadership transition plan as Shawn Rubin, the Institute’s longtime Chief Education Officer, shifts into the Executive Director role. The best part of my job has been my 15 plus years working alongside Shawn, first as colleagues at Highlander Charter School, and then as we built the Institute to become the organization it is today. It is his vision and energy that lights a fire in everyone, including me. I’ve been his biggest fan since the day he came crashing into my office at the school with 5 MLL kindergarteners, where they happily counted my pencils, books, crayons and chairs. It didn’t matter that I was on a phone call with a potential funder - his commitment and fierce convictions rang true then as they do now. Nothing is more important than the kids.  

In every transition, there are changes great and small that help to define the next chapter. I truly cannot wait to see what the Institute has in store. I know that at its core, the organization will continue to lead from a point of truth, humility, and iteration. I will take with me a set of beliefs that will continue to guide my new journey each day: 

  • Those closest to the problem are often closest to the solution.  
  • Community member, parent, and student voices matter.  
  • All students, especially the most vulnerable, are capable of excelling. 

Thank you for the role you’ve played in my journey. We’ve made a meaningful impact, together. I wish all the success imaginable to my friend and successor Shawn Rubin, Highlander Institute staff, board, partners and community, but especially the students and educators we support each day.  

Economic Development Through Educational Technology

With the generous support of Commerce RI, Highlander Institute recently enlisted the support of Fourth Economy Consulting to conduct a feasibility study of the RI EdTech landscape. Based on numerous interviews and focus groups, economic analysis and research, this study analyzes the strategy for economic growth in RI through education technology. As executive agents of EduvateRI, RI’s Education Innovation Cluster, and in partnership with the RI Office of Innovation and Digital Promise, this report will assist in the growth of this sector across the state, looking at educational technology as an economic driver. For more information, visit the EduvateRI website and read the full study here:

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Excellence in Education and Learning

Highlander Institute received the 2016 Providence Business News Award for Excellence in Education and Learning. The Institute was honored along with 9 other Rhode Island organizations and businesses at the annual PBN awards ceremony in November. PBN kindly put together this video to highlight our work and mission.

You can read read more about why PBN selected Highlander Institute here.

Tom Vander Ark – "Highlander Institute Blends Rhode Island"

Tom Vander Ark, author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World and Smart Cities That Work for Everyone: 7 Keys to Education & Employment, gave the keynote address at Highlander Institute’s 4th Annual Blended Learning Conference, which convened local, regional, and national experts around blended learning and technology integration! 


“No state has a better blended learning partner than Rhode Island’s Highlander Institute.” – Tom Vander Ark


Read Tom’s blog post about his trip to Rhode Island with us here!


Tom Vander Ark Cites Highlander Institute as Key to Blended Learning in Providence

Smart Cities: Providence Picking Up The Pace

The Providence School District was engaged in a turnaround effort at the turn of the century. Almost 15 years later, Providence Schools continues efforts to implement an “aligned instructional system,” is hostile toward options, but is actively pursuing blended learning options. Helping to launch the the state’s model for blended learning,The Highlander Institute has been pulled deeper into collaborative efforts with Providence Schools to expand blended learning and competency based opportunities across the district.