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Northeast Foundation to expand Responsive Classroom

$250,000 grant will fuel adaptation for largest U.S. school districts

TURNERS FALLS — After working for three decades with individual schools and small districts, local education developer Northeast Foundation for Children is ready to ramp up its “Responsive Classroom” program and sell it to large school districts in major metropolitan markets.

A large-scale planning initiative over the next year, paid for by a $250,000 grant from philanthropist organization NoVo Foundation, will help Northeast Foundation get there, said spokesman Richard Henning.

Money will be used to extensively train staff and improve its technology, said Henning. It will allow the local foundation to learn the best ways — through the use of staff consultants and online “webinars” — to reach more children and teachers without reducing the quality of the program, he said.

Responsive Classroom, born 30 years ago at the private Greenfield Center School, aims to create an environment that allows students to “buy in” to their education and become engaged learners.

Students discuss goals for the day during a daily morning meeting. They have jobs in the classroom and work with the teacher to create class rules and expectations. Most assignments are designed with multiple options, which allows students to choose a project that is aligned with their interests.

When Responsive Classroom began, individual teachers were learning the techniques and using it in their classrooms, said Henning.

But about 10 years ago, that began to change. Whole schools decided to implement the program — using it not only in classrooms, but also in the cafeteria and on the playground.

The logical next step for the foundation was to move to the district level, said Henning. In recent years, the organization has worked its way up from small districts, consisting of a few schools, to much larger ones — such as a contract in Memphis, Tenn., that reaches 100,000 students.

And now, he said, the foundation’s gaze is fixed upon the country’s largest cities.

Social, emotional learning

But the organization needed help to learn how to work with a metropolitan school district’s moving pieces to integrate the program into hundreds of its schools.

Enter NoVo: a six-year-old private philanthropy based in New York City.

For the first time, NoVo gave $2.2 million this year to 11 organizations across the country that were looking to scale up their social and emotional learning programs, said Pamela McVeagh-Lally, manager for NoVo’s initiative for social and emotional learning. Northeast Foundation was one of those organizations.

“NoVo’s mission is to ... foster a shift in society away from domination towards collaboration and partnership,” said McVeagh-Lally. “If we work with children as they go through school ... they’d be creating a very different positive world from the one we have.”

McVeagh-Lally said that each of the organizations, including the foundation, will spend grant money over the course of this year to form a plan on how to ramp up their services. NoVo could choose to invest further in the organization upon seeing its plan, she said.

Organizations will spend grant money on hiring consultants to teach them specialized skills that they will need to navigate through large school district waters, she said.

For example, the national education development organization Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning has first-hand experience in working with large school districts, said McVeagh-Lally.

Consultants from that organization, or others, could answer some questions the grantees may have — such as how to improve its communications and marketing, and whether to open up regional branches or satellite offices, she said.

Part of the money will also be used to help the organizations continue their regular day-to-day operations while designing their plans, she said.

Henning said that there will be no immediate staff hires, but that could change if the plan leads to future grants down the road. The foundation currently employs 40 full-time staff and about 100 part-time consulting teachers who teach workshops around the country, he said.

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