In Rhode Island, the name “EduvateRI” represents the efforts of committed education innovators who have been collaborating since 2012 to seed, inspire, and scale innovation across the state. If you were to peel back the label on this Education Innovation Cluster, you would find a diverse group of practitioners, researchers, funders, government workers, and commercial partners dedicated to “closing opportunity gaps for students, improving the national competitiveness of Rhode Island, and driving economic growth through new and existing education-related business.” The brand, now living within the Rhode Island Office of Innovation, allows for the participation of many different voices without the baggage that comes with different organizational missions.
EduvateRI has helped a group of committed innovators to drive conversation and change in the state in a way that no singular entity—public or private, individual or organizational—could on its own, according to Daniela Fairchild, Director of Education at the Rhode Island Office of Innovation. Fairchild notes, “If we’re all operating individually, we won’t reach the goals we’re reaching for in the timeline we want to reach them. [EduvateRI] gives us a launching pad to make sure these connections are as tight and speedy as possible.”
EduvateRI is part of the Digital Promise Education Innovation Clusters (EdClusters) network, representing one of 30 networks across the United States that seek to drive change through collective work. EdClusters are local communities of practice that support innovative teaching and learning in their region through the congregation of diverse stakeholder groups. While each cluster maintains a different focus and celebrates a unique context, each believes that active networks of diverse and committed stakeholders are uniquely positioned to design, launch, iterate on, and disseminate breakthrough learning practices and tools. EduvateRI recently exemplified the power of this model through the public release of their personalized learning paper, which aimed to “ignite a statewide conversation” by sharing the contributions and aspirations of organizations and individuals across the state.
The white paper synthesizes the learning of regional practitioners and experts to set Rhode Island’s vision for personalized learning. The publication presents an understanding and definition of personalized learning, created and critiqued by 40 key stakeholder organizations and individuals in Rhode Island. It makes the case for Rhode Island as the right place to make system-wide shifts toward personalized learning. It elevates the voices, perspectives, and consensus reached by these parties. And it sets a vision for the state that can be adopted by many different parties—many of whom are already bought in through their own participation in its creation.
Fairchild notes, “[The paper] does not carry the weight as a mandate from the state… It is not from any of our nonprofits saying this is their specific vision. It is a collective vision for the state. EduvateRI is a white label that doesn’t have the reputation or mission of any individual organization. It’s about cohesiveness, sharing knowledge, and building community. This [paper is something] that could only be organically and authentically done by our Education Innovation Cluster.”
It has taken many years to develop EduvateRI into the action-oriented producer it is today. Dana Borrelli-Murray, Executive Director of the Highlander Institute and a founder of EduvateRI, noted the idea for a cluster came from a few education innovators in Rhode Island. They thought education could be an economic driver in the state and started knocking on doors of individuals and organizations to discuss the possibility of making education the center of an innovation cluster. The group received funding in 2015 for a planning grant from CommerceRI, the commerce corporation of Rhode Island, which allowed the group to grow EduvateRI in earnest.
EduvateRI started by drawing people together to share pizza, beer, and powerful ideas for the possibility of an education innovation cluster. The connections in and of themselves were powerful and solidified by committed organizers, but leaders sought to make EduvateRI an entity that scaled beyond a listserv and would be powered by more than individuals’ grit. Borrelli-Murray notes, “Since then, we’ve really evolved. We made a pact a few years ago that the cluster would focus on what happens between the meetings, rather than what happens at the meetings… We knew that in order for our cluster to be a value add, it has to do something for the community at large.”
— EduvateRI (@eduvateri) February 23, 2017
Work for the community at large isn’t always a perfect mission fit for local organizations, who tend to focus on smaller, more specialized groups or regions in a community. The ability to attribute broader, state-level work to EduvateRI became a powerful possibility. Borrelli-Murray says, “I really didn’t want [The Highlander Institute’s] mission and work to be confused with the needs of Rhode Island, that go beyond our mission and might seem like mission creep. I see [contributing to EduvateRI] as one of my main volunteer activities. We are a partner among many partners. It shows that the only way to do good work is to collaborate to do it well.”
Mario Andrade, superintendent of Bristol Warren Regional School District in Rhode Island and a member of the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools, notes that “diving deeper into the white paper is a good start. The power of bringing these stakeholders together is monumental. I think if we have that common vision on where we want to go, [next steps are] installing systems and structures across Rhode Island that would support educational learning environments.” These systems could include higher education pathways, professional development at the district and state level, and decision-making about funding allocation at the state level.
The state of Rhode Island may be the smallest geographically in the country, but it has its eyes on grander superlatives, according to Borrelli-Murray. She says, “I think that Rhode Island has all of the ingredients to be the first blended and personalized state in the country. We have everything we need in this state to scale… I know that I’m the Rhode Island fan club president, but I do think we have this ability to do deep, quick, rapid-cycle work to share with everyone else. I think that our state has a lot to offer—beautiful sandy beaches, wonderful restaurants, a great music and art scene, and good proximity to Boston and New York. These are things that could drive energy and excitement to our state, perhaps driving people to think of our state as a lab for innovation for everyone else.”
While the state’s entire population count is smaller than the student population of New York City, the state offers a rich demographic and geographic representation, which Fairchild sees as a serious asset in making it a “lab state for innovation.” Fairchild notes, “We are a microcosm of the country. From a political, ethnic, rural, urban breakdown and demographic perspective. We treat that as a reason for us to be a leader in innovation for the country… We want to show how [innovations like personalized learning] can be possible and scale in states bigger than us.” As a initial step, Providence hosted the 2016 Education Innovation Clusters meeting—something publicly supported by Governor Gina Raimondo herself.
— Gina Raimondo (@GovRaimondo) September 22, 2016
— Katie Martin (@katiemartinedu) September 21, 2016
There is always more work to do. Fairchild says, “We need to make sure that we are continuing to hear all voices and engage all stakeholders. EduvateRI provides the opportunity to do that continuous engagement—so we’re not leaving voices out, and rising all voices in this work. We are constantly asking ourselves, ‘How are we going even deeper on those engagements and making sure that we have champions of that work in myriad communities and myriad spaces?’”
As the cluster enters its sixth year of operation, EduvateRI is not slowing down. Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, the group will host its standard monthly meet-ups, continue to build deeper community connections, and collectively elevate the work of all partners. More than that, members plan to use the EduvateRI community to expand collective impact and democratize the power systems in education to ensure all voices are heard. Borrelli-Murray says, “We’re trying to really push the limits in terms of what we actually want to do for kids for education in the 21st century. Beyond thinking about silver bullets or quick answers, we really see this is a groundwork we’re building, a growth mindset for educators, a long game, and we’re in it to win on that kind of level.”