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Introducing Ashoka's Inaugural Class of Changemaker Schools

5 pioneering schools showcase how they cultivate empathy and mold changemakers.

By Laura White

In May 2012, Laura graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, Laura brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, LA, and was a founding member of Tulane’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative, Laura manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools that have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. Laura is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

October 11, 2012

Cultivating empathy and empowering children to become effective changemakers in their communities isn’t an add-on, or a brand-new concept: it starts with simply articulating, and then amplifying, how great teachers build empathy in students.

Ashoka has set out to do just that, beginning with five pioneering elementary schools in the US. Through actions big and small – from posting observed student “Acts of Kindness” in the hallway, to creating a partnership with Ashoka Fellow Mary Gordon’s Roots of Empathy – the Empathy Initiative’s first cohort of Changemaker Schools is leading the way forward in empathy education. Together, we are working to make those practices a new norm, by identifying and sharing stories, tools, and how-to’s that can help educators everywhere put empathy into practice.

Spanning the full range of school types throughout the US—including public district, charter, and independent, as well as public pilot—the schools, and more importantly, the educators within them, are proving that creating an environment in which empathy can thrive can be done anywhere, by schools of every type.

Without further ado, meet our first cohort of Changemaker Schools:

Georgetown Day School (Washington, DC)
Innovative thinking is baked into Georgetown Day School’s history.  Founded by a handful of concerned parents, it opened its doors in 1945 – a full decade before Brown vs. Board of Education – as the first racially integrated school in Washington, DC. Today, Georgetown Day continues to innovate. The school was on the cutting edge of service learning when, nearly a decade ago, Change Leader Bobby Asher and a fellow teacher, C. A. Pilling, designed and led a trip to Ethiopia, where students were immersed in the local culture and participated in in-depth service projects. Today, every student, from prekindergarten to 12th grade, engages in service directly tied to the curriculum, and the school’s comprehensive service-learning program includes clubs that involve parents, students and teachers alike. Additionally, Georgetown Day has created an ecosystem of programming around character education, empathy development, and social justice. Georgetown Day requires all students to participate in a diversity seminar during 9th grade, and at a time in which many schools were only beginning to formally recognize a Gay Pride Day, Georgetown Day was celebrating Gay Pride Week.  The event is coordinated annually by the school’s Diversity Office, which itself represents an empathy innovation. 

Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School (Washington, DC)
Founded by Ashoka Fellow Aleta Margolis, the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School is based on three core beliefs, beginning with a fundamental knowledge that children are inherently good and have an innate desire to learn, and that every child can be successful in a school context, and finally, that children’s energy, unique talents, and individuality are assets, not obstacles. A noble raison d’être, sure, but as we all know, the devil is in the details. Fortunately, the team at Inspired Teaching is matching practices to principles. Four consistent goals underpin all subject matter: every teacher, no matter the grade or discipline, aims to cultivate Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity. Teaching Residents teach alongside experienced Master Teachers, learning to understand what are known as the ABCDE’s of student needs—autonomy, belonging, competence, developmental appropriateness, and engagement—and to pinpoint the underlying source of students’ struggles and misbehavior. The school’s approach to discipline relies on relationship-based discipline: school “rules” are written not about “you” or “I”, but about “everyone” to communicate that care is taken for the community as a whole. Everyone learns. Everyone is safe. Everyone builds community. This practice invites students to think about their actions in terms of their impact on others, not their compliance with the school’s policies.

Lake Forest Park Elementary School (Lake Forest Park, WA)
“Everyone a Changemaker” is a part of Lake Forest Park’s culture. The school truly lives the “Lake Forest Promise”: a promise to be courteous, kind, and respectful of others in language and behavior; to maintain a safe environment; and to respect the property of others. While Principal Aimee Miner reads the Promise over the intercom each day, she and the entire team are also careful to reinforce the message by modeling it in teacher behavior and through community partner programs like Roots of Empathy. Roots of Empathy has helped to forge a powerful bridge between Lake Forest Park and the surrounding community: the first mom to participate in the school’s program did not speak English and was new to the community. She then spread the word, and now, even two district employees signed up to be a part of the Roots of Empathy program. Lake Forest Park continues to be a leader by working with its district, Shoreline Schools, to share the successes of its Roots of Empathy partnership.

Mission Hill School (Boston, MA)
Founded by famed educator (and MacArthur Genius) Deborah Meier, Mission Hill is widely considered a model among small schools, and those with a bent toward democratic education. Empathy is embedded not only in the school culture—Principal Ayla Gavins, for instance, maintains an open and inviting office, where students are invited to share their feelings and concerns—but in the curriculum and assessment structure as well. The school’s Five Habits of the Mind, for instance, include a practice called “viewpoint,” requiring students to question what it is like to “step into other people’s shoes,” to look “from a different direction,” or to reflect from a different history or expectation. But Mission Hill is more than just a great school with a great mission and a great history: it is home to a group of educators who are pushing forward what it means to be a teacher. You can read more about 3rd grade teacher and Changemaker School leader Jenerra Williams here, and watch Co-Leader and kindergarten teacher, Kathy Clunis D’Andrea in action in the behind-the-scenes videos here and here.  Kathy and Jenerra, together with the rest of the powerhouse team behind our Changemaker Schools, will continue sharing updates and insights on StartEmpathy.org, so stay tuned!

Prospect Sierra (El Cerrito, CA)
For some, organizing TEDxGoldenGateEd—which focused on celebrating and cultivating compassion in the classroom—might have conferred enough of a merit badge when it comes to demonstrating your commitment to social and emotional learning. But not for the teachers and administrators at Prospect Sierra. This past year, Britt Anderson, the school’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, launched “This PS Life,” taking a cue from Ira Glass “This American Life”. Through an on-going podcast series, the team set out to capture the school’s identity, and, in the process, to spur dialogue across the campus and to help seemingly isolated students realize they weren’t alone. To kick it off, Britt and her team organized different groups of children by birth order—ranging from oldest in their family to youngest—and recorded the conversations with a digital recorder. Next, they gathered groups of students together who shared a common experience, inviting students who were glasses to one conversation, students who were vegetarian to another, and eventually, students united by weightier subject matter, such as being multi-ethnic, or being raised by LGBT parents. Now, educators at Prospect Sierra are turning their attention to helping students turn empathy into action, by launching new projects, and equipping them with the agency they need to solve problems they’re passionate about. 


Ashoka’s Changemaker Schools will be sharing key principles, best practices, and specific activities through the Start Empathy blog. Know of a school that’s made empathy—and the various skills it entails—a priority, and has the results to show for it? We’re constantly on the lookout for new insights and potential network members, so let us know!