Alicia Harper is an academic dean and principal-in-residence at AF Brownsville Elementary. She leads her school’s Community Circles, and we sat down with her to learn more about this tradition.
Thanks for talking with us, Alicia. To get started, tell us about yourself—what brought you to education?
I started as a teacher with the New York City Teaching Fellows right out of college. I wanted to go into education because it’s been a door-opener for me and has given me access to things I never would have done otherwise.
Growing up, I was in foster care and lived in different homes in Brooklyn. One of the things I was good at was academics. As a senior, I got a New York Times college scholarship, and it literally changed the course of my life. It allowed me to go to college without worrying about finances.
I went to Columbia University, and when I got there, I realized that even though I was in the top of my class in high school, I wasn’t as academically prepared as some of the other students. It made me wonder—if I did well and was struggling, what about the other kids who didn’t do well? That sparked my interest in educational equity. I wanted to be a part of the solution and make sure that every single kid gets an excellent education.
I taught third and fifth grades in Brownsville at a traditional public school. From there, I joined Uncommon Schools, and later, Success Academy. This is my first year at Achievement First. Wherever I serve, it’s important to me that kids are having fun at school and engaging in rigorous curriculum.
Can you share more about Community Circle?
Community Circle is a time for the entire school community to come together in a common space. It’s like a pep rally to be motivated to keep pushing. We know our school is hard work, so we want to celebrate all the good things going on.
Different classes and grades take turns doing their own chants and cheers, and we give out awards based on achievement. The students getting awards are not necessarily the valedictorians—many times, they’re the ones who are showing great effort and growth. We want students to know that learning is a process, and that the process is just as important and worthy of celebration—getting 100s is not the only way to get noticed.
We’ve celebrated reading, science, and coming up, we’ll spotlight each grade. We also have Circles where parents are invited, and we share appreciations because we couldn’t do any of this work without them. Prospective families have visited as well.
What do you hope scholars take from Community Circle?
I hope they’re taking away appreciation for the academic process and inspiration from seeing each other be recognized for working hard. It’s so moving to see scholars excited because everyone is cheering them on and celebrating with them. In Community Circle, scholars learn that hard work is something we do, and it pays off. Our scholars also feel a lot of pride—pride in our school, in their class, and in our community. Brownsville is not typically a community that feels pride because it hasn’t always been highlighted in positive way. We want to be the ones to change the narrative. Exceptional people live in Brownsville. Exceptional students live in Brownsville.
Can you share a memorable moment from Community Circles?
Sometimes, we play musical chairs, and the kids love it. They get to see our staff being playful and silly, and that made it so fun.
Do you have any advice for people who want to do something similar at their school?
As the facilitator, you’re running the show, but everyone everyone needs to be part of it so that it feels like a true community celebration. Keep engagement high—do lots of chants and cheers so that students are participating as much as possible. Err on the side of inspiration. You want students to feel pumped up for the day and proud of their school. Keep it quick paced.
Don’t underestimate the power of having fun with kids in school. It can be intimidating with 400 kids and teachers in one space and all eyes on you. You feel like you have to control the room, and you’re wondering, “are they going to be listening?” But if they’re engaged, motivated, and having fun, and you’re having fun, then it will be one of the things students remember the most about school.
That’s great advice! Thanks for sharing, Alicia! We look forward to hearing more great things from AF Brownsville.
Want to see what a Community Circle looks like? Check one out here.