The start of the school year always signals new beginnings. From finding your new classroom and meeting your new teacher to learning new subjects or picking up a new sport, there is so much to look forward to.
This year, DREAM is particularly excited about a truly special new beginning: the official opening of DREAM Highbridge Elementary, the sixth of our extended-day, extended-year public charter schools, and our first dedicated to the Highbridge area of the South Bronx. Temporarily located at the New Settlement Community Center for this school year, DREAM Highbridge will open with two Kindergarten classes, adding an additional grade level each year.
DREAM Highbridge Founding Principal Shannel Richardson and her staff will welcome DREAM’s newest students and families on August 29. Until then, hear more from her about her vision for the first day, her goals for DREAM Highbridge, and more in our Q&A below!
DREAM: What are you looking forward to the most in your role as founding principal?
Shannel Richardson: I’m mostly looking forward to establishing a school where we can support all kids. I’m a big believer in serving the community and ensuring every single child on our campus has an opportunity to learn and grow. Most of our students are of African-American or Hispanic descent, and unfortunately, we live in a world where there are many inequalities. It’s extremely important to me, especially as someone who grew up in the Bronx and faced inequalities myself, that I provide a school where students are able to learn, and thrive, and grow, and become self-advocates once they become adults.
DREAM: What will make DREAM Highbridge unique?
SR: One of the reasons I joined DREAM in the first place is because we are deep believers in educating the whole child. At DREAM Highbridge, we have the luxury of growing into a K-8 school, and incorporating the arts and physical activities—it will be nice for our kids to not just learn academics and content, but also learn how to be full-scale people and decide what types of extracurriculars they want to do, what type of hobbies they enjoy through our program. And we provide opportunities for them to grapple with different types.
DREAM: Highbridge is a new school location for DREAM. What are some of your plans to engage the community?
SR: As we grow, and once we are in our permanent location, I definitely will look for opportunities to engage the community. We’d love to have a block party where we invite local businesses. A lot of residents in the neighborhood have mom-and-pop shops and self-owned businesses. So as we grow into a full-scale school, I’d love to have things like that to invite community members to showcase who they are and who our community is.
DREAM: What will the first day of school look like?
SR: My hope overall is that it will be a joyous, fulfilling day for our students. Not only will our DREAM Highbridge staff be there, but also some of our network staff will be coming to greet new families and students. I will be at the door greeting students and families, we’ll have a little music playing.
We want to begin building student independence up front, so we will allow students to navigate going to their class on their own. But there will be people in the hallway welcoming them and ushering them in the right direction. And if anyone is having any struggles—we know it’s kindergarten and we know separation can be hard at times—we will have people on site to support families and students if needed. But the goal is to really have a joyful experience for our kids and build that student independence from day one.
DREAM: How will the student voice be represented in the founding and building of this new school?
SR: Our kids are with us for eight hours a day, and even longer when you count afterschool. For me, it’s extremely important for kids to be engaged with us, for them to learn, and for them to want to come to school every day. We need to create a space for our kids to feel like they can be authentic—that who they are and what their cultural backgrounds are, are showing up in our space, so they feel like our school is a home. And then through our academic content and SEL program, we will teach kids how to specifically navigate how to speak up, and share ideas, and collaborate with peers and adults in the building. To me, that gets to the heart of them learning how to build up their voices and independence. And ultimately helping them to grow and learn, which is our mission.
DREAM: What are your goals for this first school year?
SR: We have a set of values that our school is upholding alongside DREAM’s organizational maxims.
- We want to build a culture of cultural competency. That really just means that we want to take a step back and recognize who our students and families are, how they are the same or different to who we are, and let that shine in our school.
- We are also accountable for our results. This really means we are thinking about our data consistently, and using our data to ensure every single child is growing toward our goals. It’s on us to make sure we are doing that all the time, and to me, that is how we will get our kids to excel.
- I believe deeply in equity with a high bar. We are serving predominantly African-American and Hispanic students, and we live in a country we know is inequitable. If we want to have a school that is equitable for our kids, it doesn’t mean we lower the bar for them. We still have a high bar, and we still push them toward meeting the high bar, but we do so in a way where we are targeting where each child is. So we are looking at that data and making a decision on their needs and how we’re going to approach those needs to help them meet that bar.
- We are a growing school. As we grow to a full K-8 school, we are all learning along that journey, and we want to build habits of improving and learning. Even I—I’ve been in leadership before, but I’m a new principal, and I want feedback. We believe deeply in 360-degree feedback. We want to learn how we can improve—for ourselves, for our kids, and for our families—as we grow.
DREAM: Speaking of being a first-time principal, before taking this role, you participated in DREAM’s Principal in Residence Program. Can you discuss how that prepared you to lead DREAM Highbridge Elementary School?
SR: I had the opportunity to shadow a principal, and have moments of being in the shoes of a principal. I used the year to gain an understanding of what are the things that need to be prepped and built to establish a strong school culture, and adult culture, as well as systems and protocols. It was nice to have the year to shadow, learn those things, and see those things actually happen in practice. And now I can turn-key for my own school.
DREAM: Before establishing DREAM Highbridge, DREAM held its award-winning REAL Kids summer learning programming in the community. How has that helped on the journey to opening the school?
SR: That is one of the beautiful things about DREAM overall: that DREAM wasn’t initially founded as a school. The goal was that we wanted kids to have a place to come and play and grow and develop, and then over time, that took shape as building schools, places for kids to do all these things. For that to have happened in Highbridge as well is a beautiful segue as we continue to grow as a network. I went to see the summer program in Highbridge last year, and it was nice to learn about the community and see the kids thriving within our program. I’m excited to now build on that and provide the opportunity for them to flourish with DREAM.
DREAM: Is there anything else you’d like to emphasize for the DREAM Highbridge community?
SR: The big thing is knowing that I am also from the Bronx community, and I know and understand the challenges that can come about as a parent in finding a great school for kids. I also am a parent, and I struggled to find a great school for my child when she was at that age. I understand how hard it can be to find a great quality school that is focused on all parts, on building that whole child. And I made the choice to come to DREAM because DREAM offers that. And I’m hoping that we can continue to offer this to the families in our community and have them see the kind of school that we are.