VOICES FROM THE FIELD 15 NOVEMBER 2022
BY STEVE HEATH AND ALIN BENNETT
The only permission we seek is that of the learners themselves.
STEVE HEATH, FABNEWPORT
Learner-centered education is blossoming in spaces all across the country — from micro-schools to district programs to homeschool coops to after- and out-of-school opportunities. It is its emergence in, between, and around conventional education structures that fuels Education Reimagined’s focus on and commitment to catalyzing full-blown learner-centered ecosystems where this approach to education can thrive like never before.
And, as we discover how such ecosystems can emerge, we must look to and learn from pieces of this future already coming to life. One of these is FabNewport.
Founded in 2013 as a Fab Lab in the North End of Newport, Rhode Island, FabNewport now serves about 5,000 primarily urban middle and high school-aged youth in Providence and Newport. They facilitate school day, after-school, and summer learning experiences in schools, libraries, community centers, and outdoor hubs, such as beaches, tennis courts, farms, and bike paths. The learning emphasizes collaboration, distributed teaching and learning, and choice.
“We do our best to create programs students ask for,” said Steve Heath, FabNewport’s founder and executive director. “A few summers ago, we exposed kids to surfing and they loved it. Their confidence went through the roof, and now we are going deep with surfing and have a partnership with an organization with a specialty in surfing.” Last winter, a group of high school learners were interested in addressing school inequities, so FabNewport launched a Young Philosophers club that ended up, with the help of a school committee member, writing the local high school’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policy.
FabNewport takes care to focus on each learner’s interests, from 3D design/printing and surf lessons to agricultural activities and sailing. Connecting youth to an array of cultural, educational, and recreational opportunities helps to inspire these young learners to see how they might fit into the world. “Middle school aged kids need to get out and explore,” said Steve. “They are hungry for new experiences.”
Since its founding, FabNewport has grown from a volunteer-run makerspace focused on technology-rich programming to a $1.4 million state-wide youth development organization with a range of programs, 12 full-time employees, 43 paid teen interns, and over 50 community partners. They are catalyzing equitable, learner-centered, place-based opportunities and seeding the ground for a learner-centered ecosystem to emerge in Rhode Island by running model programs, developing partnerships with local businesses, civic leaders, and families, and influencing decision-makers to see what a new future for education and learning could look like.
“We do this because it works,” Steve said. “We see extraordinary growth in youth who engage in and with the community, using their bodies, minds, and spirits. Youth flourish on surfboards, bikes, and boats and thrive when they are exploring, designing, and making. We see exceptional social-emotional growth when youth serve each other and community members. Youth are taking charge of their lives.”
We see extraordinary growth in youth who engage in and with the community, using their bodies, minds, and spirits. Youth flourish on surfboards, bikes, and boats and thrive when they are exploring, designing, and making.
STEVE HEATH, FABNEWPORT
One example of how their young learners excel is Gabby. She moved with her siblings and mother to Newport as a sixth grader. Gabby has since participated in hundreds of hours of
FabNewport programming. Her confidence grew as she learned how to code, design, and run small machines and entertained thoughts of becoming an engineer. In her freshman year of high school, after she was humiliated by a teacher who “trashed” her report on implicit bias in the workplace, she exercised her agency and switched to the Met School where she could design her own learning plan. She secured an internship with a lawyer and a state representative and now is on a path to becoming a civil rights attorney.
Gabby’s path is remarkable, but not uncommon. FabNewport’s structure puts young learners’ needs and interests at the forefront of their experience. Key ingredients to their practice include:
- Designing programs that engage students for multiple years so they can build long-term relationships with supportive adults while growing their agency and competencies, and developing their integrated identity
- Connecting learners to place-based opportunities in the community
- Encouraging learners to develop a Positive Future Vision grounded in community and the reality of their emerging competencies and their identity
- Coaching other organizations to develop similar programs
Alin Bennett, Education Reimagined’s Vice President of Practice and Field Advancement, has been spending a lot of time at FabNewport to see their work in action. He shared the following about what he’s seen:
“I have learned from and with Steve for over a decade now, as we both worked together at the Met School in Providence and Newport, RI. I’ve witnessed FabNewport’s growth, in both their vision and their impact on our community. I have seen three conditions that make the community FabNewport serves fertile for the growth of their ecosystem. First, the FabNewport team is filled with learner-centered leaders who share a common worldview towards learners, learning, and a transformed purpose for education. Second, they have intentionally and powerfully built connections with myriad stakeholders in their community and, more so, leveraged these connections to engage in a truly inclusive process as they look to grow their work. Third, they bring a level of quality and fidelity in their programming that enables the learners they serve to develop a Positive Future Vision for themselves, their families, and their community. I believe it is this centering of a personal Positive Future Vision that really creates a transformational experience for these learners.”
FabNewport is not only talking about how education needs to change, but they are modeling what this future can look like. They are transforming learning in Rhode Island by increasing opportunities — during school, after school, and on weekends — for youth to engage in learning with and about their communities and the world around them. With a focus on equity, FabNewport provides under-resourced youth with opportunities and relationships that would not otherwise be available to them.
FabNewport is responsive to the interests and needs of their learners. Because FabNewport is nimble, they can reduce the time from concept to program implementation from years to months. “When learners advocated for a surfing program,” Steve shared, “we did not have to ask permission of any regulatory authorities to design a program, find partners, and begin offering it. Later, when the new surfers asked questions about the ocean and marine life, we quickly pivoted with another partner to create programming designed to engage them. The only permission we seek is that of the learners themselves. Our programs are a powerful way for students to actively engage in initiating, growing, and focusing their interests, so they can better develop their future plans.”
For Steve, focusing on the learners is the key ingredient to growing an ecosystem. “Getting your team, and anyone connected with the learners, to understand that we are building relationships to provide the loving and nurturing scaffolding for students to grow lives of meaning and purpose is at the core of our work.”
While learner-centered ecosystems will take on many forms, FabNewport is illuminating what it can look like to connect and build a community of support, care, and passion around youth to enable their thriving and contribution. As we discover what it takes to bring a learner-centered ecosystem to life, we are eager to continue learning, partnering, and building with this growing community of learners and leaders.