For DREAM co-Chief Executive Officer Eve Colavito, the maxim “All Kids Can. This Kid Can.” is particularly meaningful. It is a guiding principle for how she leads DREAM and drives its mission forward, a core belief instilled from her childhood growing up in a family of educators, and a fact she’s reminded of each day as a parent to three children.
In the DREAM Q&A below, hear more from Eve on her personal connection to this maxim, how it informs her work, and her path as an educator and leader.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
DREAM: Can you tell us a little about your background, before you became co-CEO of DREAM?
Eve Colavito: I started my career as a teacher, which is what I always knew I was going to do. Shortly after, I realized I lacked some of the skills I needed to meet the needs of the kids in my classroom. So I decided to go back to school and get a degree in special education. I wasn’t confident I would become a special education teacher, but I knew there was something I was missing in terms of the depth of knowledge I had about kids. I then used that learning to help found an inclusion program at a charter school in the Bronx before coming to DREAM. My first role here was Director of Curriculum and Instruction, then I was the second principal of our first elementary school, and I have continued to grow with the organization since then.
DREAM: You said you always knew you wanted to become a teacher. What was the driving force behind that?
EC: One, I come from a family of teachers. My grandmother went back to school in her 50s to become a teacher. My mom was a special education teacher. My dad was a teacher and then a principal, and then a district leader. My dad always lived and breathed his work. His students would be at our house, they were our babysitters. Education was just in the air everywhere. The second reason was Mrs. Joseph, my third grade teacher. She had a really remarkable way of being incredibly caring and holding us highly accountable. I remember how much I loved her, and I wanted to make her proud. I was a very good student, but I got in trouble one time, and I remember her distinctly holding me accountable. I was probably really embarrassed, but I also remember not wanting to let her down. I remember thinking, “I wonder if I could ever be like Mrs. Joseph.”
DREAM: What was it about DREAM and its mission that first stood out to you?
EC: When I was a classroom teacher, I was part of a very small school that had a wonderful community—families sent multiple kids there year after year, and the school felt like a family in many ways. There was a connection between leaders, teachers, and families that felt unique.
Years later, when I was introduced to DREAM, there was this sense that this school was trying to be something more than a school. It was rooted in the East Harlem community. And I found myself really itching to get back to a place that felt more like a family, somewhere where we were all deeply connected to a purpose, where we were grounded in something bigger than ourselves. Knowing DREAM and Harlem RBI’s history, meeting the people who worked here, and then seeing that the school was trying to do something different—it all drew me in.
DREAM: You have such an extensive background in childhood education, but I would assume being a parent to three school-aged children (ages 17, 14, and 9) also affects your approach to what you do. Has being a parent changed or reinforced any of the ways you approach your work?
EC: I parent in a lot of the ways I believe educators should teach—I think kids need a combination of deep love and support, alongside really high expectations and a belief they can do anything. Becoming a parent reinforced that for me as an educator. As a parent, you know the ins and outs of your kids—what time they woke up, what they ate, why that first period is hard for them, which subjects they’re struggling with. You know all of these things, because you only have your kids. But when you’re a teacher or a school leader, you have many kids in front of you every day. As a parent who’s also an educator, you’re carrying these two truths in your head all the time—that every single person in front of me is an individual with a diverse set of needs affected by so much, and that you have a responsibility to teach all of them. It’s really hard to carry these two things together—the deep understanding of the individual and the mandate of the collective that education requires. Really excellent teachers do both. They can move through the work keeping both in mind all the time. And maybe I knew that before I became a parent, but I think the empathy I have for parents and the people who teach our kids every day became stronger.
DREAM: Your daughter Vivian has Angelman Syndrome, a neurogenetic condition that can cause developmental delays for children. How has what you’ve learned through her educational pursuits informed your work at DREAM?
EC: I had studied special education. I learned how to teach kids with reading disorders. I learned about neurodivergent kids as a graduate student, and then I taught neurodivergent kids as a teacher and led a program for neurodivergent kids as director. And then Vivian was born with this rare condition. More than anything, what has been reinforced for me is how important it is to presume unlimited potential in every child. We have to think about kids with disabilities in really unique and individual ways, with an understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all for our kids who are neurodivergent, and that the spaces, environments, and tools they are given really have to match who they are.
After Vivian was born, when we started to have conversations with her therapists and her teachers, asking what kind of school she would thrive in, we knew it should be a place where you could leverage her assets and build on her strengths, while still giving her all the supports and interventions she needs academically. Vivian is a joyful ray of sunshine, and while she is non-verbal, she finds many other ways to communicate. Could we find a school that would see these strengths in her? When we went to shape what that program would look like, there were some things that stood out to me as necessary ingredients for inclusion programs that are also modeled here at DREAM.
First, I think one of the necessary ingredients is a strong community. You can’t drop an inclusion program into a community that doesn’t have a sense of belonging. The community has to see including kids with disabilities as part of the fight for equity in our country. It has to be more than ‘admirable’ for a place like DREAM to serve all kids – it has to be wonderful and necessary to fulfill our purpose. At DREAM, we have a set of leaders who believe deeply that all kids are our community’s responsibility. That we have a responsibility to meet kids where they are, and that we do not lower the bar, but in fact work extra hard to help them meet the bar.
The second thing is having highly skilled teachers that believe in what we’re doing. It’s one thing to have community, and then there’s having the individuals who can execute. I think it’s one of the reasons teachers come to work at DREAM—we aim to be an inclusive environment where all kids belong. We end up attracting the kind of teacher that wants to put their all into finding out what assets you’re going to leverage for every kid. Our teachers, just like Vivian’s teachers, see each child’s own unique ray of light.
The third thing I learned about creating successful inclusion models is that you need concrete tools and skills. I think that’s the area we are now growing for DREAM. We have an incredible community, teachers who are committed, and strong data-driven practices—and we’re in the process of building the technical skills and tools to meet a more diverse range of learners. We don’t yet have kids at DREAM who have as profound disabilities as Vivian has, but that’s the next level of work we need to do. That’s our next frontier.
DREAM: DREAM’s population includes nearly 30% of students who have identified special needs, a number that is well above the New York City average. How has DREAM equipped itself with the tools needed to support this population?
EC: The thing that DREAM excels at is represented first and foremost by our maxim All Kids Can. This Kid Can.—the strong belief that every kid belongs and every kid can achieve. It’s required as a foundation for what we do. When we meet a new child who presents with some difference, our approach is to learn about them, observe, gather data, figure out what their assets and strengths are, and leverage those things. We approach from a learning orientation and a strengths perspective. So many schools meet kids and look only at deficits—what can they not do? Where are the gaps? But DREAM is so good at looking first at children’s strengths.
We’re also very flexible and adaptable. If a child can’t do something, we are going to gradually work toward goals and believe they can get there. We’re willing to shift—there is no one way at DREAM. We have a responsive curriculum that allows us to teach rigorous grade-level content while also meeting the needs of individual kids. The fact that we have two teachers in a classroom allows us to do that—by design, we are set up to be a responsive environment. As teachers look at their lessons for the week, one of the things they’re doing is thinking about who needs support, who needs something explained in a different way, who needs a resource, who will need 1-1 support. Our teachers are always thinking about their students as individuals.
At DREAM we also believe that an accelerated approach and diverse environments are good for everybody. When you have kids explaining their thinking in sophisticated ways, that’s good for everyone. When kids are thinking about something in different ways than you were thinking before, that’s also good for everybody. Learning is not linear, and flexible thinking is one of the greatest assets to have as an adult.
DREAM: As DREAM continues to grow, what does the future of its special education work look like?
EC: I would like us to grow into a place that can meet the needs of kids with really diverse and profound needs. I have tons of examples of the dramatic impact that DREAM has had on a child’s life—I’m thinking of all the kids I know who started at DREAM, were diagnosed with a disability, and their teachers were able to figure out exactly what they needed and meet that need. And many of those students are in college or heading off to college and are incredibly successful.
We have stories of success to prove our model works, but I can also think of the kids whose needs we couldn’t meet, and the next stage for DREAM is for us to find a way. My goal for DREAM is we one day have the resources and expertise for a fourth grader like Vivian to thrive. And I think if anyone is poised to do that it’s us, given the mindsets, beliefs, and commitment of the people who work here.