Finding Community at Innovation
Who says math and the humanities don’t mix? Not Elizabeth Chase. Her love for art, people, and math blends seamlessly through her high school career and into her future ambitions. Elizabeth is graduating from Innovation High School, a charter public school within the PRIDE public schools in Spokane.
At Innovation, Elizabeth found a community that embraced her individuality, her passions, and her care for others. Elizabeth transferred to Innovation in her Sophomore year looking to be more immersed in a school culture that better reflected her own lived experiences, as she felt lost in her previous school, which was large, impersonal and lacked diversity.
For Elizabeth, her original school didn’t offer a sense of belonging. “I realized I was different from my classmates and it really upset me,” recalls Elizabeth. “It was a big part of my growing up, and I realized I needed to be around more brown people – people who looked like me – learning with me and teaching me math. As a person of color, that’s what was important.”
So, when Elizabeth started exploring a transfer, she asked her friends who were already at Innovation about their experiences. “My friends at Innovation told me that people care about you, and they really do,” said Elizabeth. “They really work hard to establish community at the school and made sure that people were in touch with each other, especially during COVID. That’s a lesson I will take with me for life.”
At Innovation, Elizabeth discovered a caring atmosphere and scholars that often shared her previous experiences in traditional school settings. Together, they were able to build the type of community they wanted.
Creating Social-Emotional Connections Through Academics
Once settled at Innovation, Elizabeth was able to deeply explore her interests and engage in learning with her peers in new ways. One of the most powerful lessons Elizabeth has gained from her time at Innovation is group-based learning.
While she has always had a strong aptitude in math, Elizabeth welcomed opportunities to engage in group learning because it offered her a new way to explore new concepts. She found that her teachers made math interesting, engaging and fun to learn.
“I love the group, project-based learning. At my other schools, we just did worksheets for math. But, at Innovation and PRIDE, we work in groups to learn new concepts and explore questions in-depth to master the math,” she said.
In group sessions, Elizabeth discovered that by helping other students work through math problem-solving, she too gained more mastery of the field. “Articulating my thoughts to another person – showing them the exact process and making sure they knew it – solidified the process in my own head,” she added.
Engaging in peer-based learning is not just for math. Elizabeth is part of a special arts track within Innovation. The school’s Osiris program is an immersive arts program that runs in tandem with scholars’ regular academics. Within Osiris, scholars explore classic two and three-dimensional art forms as well as graphic design, fashion and textiles, and digital mediums.
Through Osiris, Elizabeth has found a particularly supportive arts community. She credits the program teacher, Rebecca, for cultivating a caring and safe environment for scholars to engage in their art, academics, and with each other.
“Our art program is a great community,” said Elizabeth. “Our teacher helps us with kind and respectful feedback – she cares about us individually and as students, which helps us learn how to offer critiques and receive feedback too.”
Elizabeth particularly appreciates how her art community has grown together. From the time she began Osiris to the present, she has gotten to know each person in the program very well. She values how she has learned how others do their art and their style, and especially how they have grown since the beginning of the program. This community has also been a major connection point for Elizabeth after COVID-19 closed in-school learning.
Learning and Growing Through the Pandemic
When Elizabeth started virtual learning, she found that her biggest challenge was keeping to a set schedule, sticking to it and turning in her work regularly, rather than letting it pile up. Fortunately, she found that the strong community and caring teachers at Innovation helped her stay on track.
“With COVID, I felt the support because teachers would check in with me because they cared. And they asked about me – socially and emotionally, not just academically,” said Elizabeth.
With the Osiris program, the scholars set up a Discord where they regularly share their art, check in with each other and offer feedback and support. The scholars also participate in a daily lunchtime ‘crew’. Crew is an opportunity for scholars to open up through discussion with prompts to explore different topics and ideas. Elizabeth values this practice because it allows for “real conversations with people you might not otherwise interact with.”
Words of Wisdom – Do Art!
As much as Elizabeth loves working in groups and interacting with her community, she also loves to escape in her art or in a good math problem. She feels similarly ‘in the zone’ when working on either.
She values her individuality and was surprised to discover how art helped her use her individuality to go further in school. Art helped Elizabeth escape when she needed space. She could put her whole personality into the pieces she worked on, pouring herself into her paintings. In doing this, Elizabeth was able to reconnect with herself, a task hard to do in the middle of high school.
“I value being myself and I feel like when you’re put in a setting like high school, that’s hard to do,” said Elizabeth. “So things like art really help with that.”
When thinking about her advice to current and future Innovation High School scholars, she adds, “Do art. Take your art class. Join the art program. Even if you don’t think you’re very good at it, you should do it anyway. It’s therapeutic and really good for you.”
Discovering Passions by Planning for the Future
Despite the pandemic challenges, Elizabeth kept a steady pace at school also started the college application process. At first, Elizabeth didn’t know how to apply and had to figure out the process on her own. While she was learning this process, Innovation councilors and teachers helped calm her fears. It was the essay writing that seemed the most difficult for Elizabeth. She thought ‘is mine good enough?’ and ‘what does a college want to know?’ But it was also through the essay writing that Elizabeth really had the opportunity to reflect on her past, her passions, and her future.
“I had to reflect on how I got here, what I want to do with my life, and what I would do with a college degree,” she recalls. “In the process of writing my essay, I realized I wanted to work with my community.” Elizabeth credits her community center’s afterschool program in part for her success in school later in life.
“I don’t come from privilege, so the afterschool program was something that helped me,” she said. “Looking back, I didn’t know it at the time, but I realized that really set me up for success. So, when I thought about my future, it was about giving back to my community which gave so much to me. A solid community and a solid foundation for kids that don’t have much will go a long way.”
When Elizabeth thinks about what community means to her, she thinks it’s about the people within your immediate sphere of access – “a five-mile radius,” she jokes. Really though, her compassion for other people shines through. No matter who you are, how much money you have, your background, faith or color of your skin, Elizabeth believes firmly that you should be treated with dignity and respect.
“It’s connections with other people and realizing that while they have their own lives, they are around you so you should care about them simply because they are living,” she said.
This care is part of what drives her to seek future opportunities to make a difference in her community. When asked about maybe blending her love of group learning and art to offer classes to help people work through emotional needs, Elizabeth says “that would be the dream.”
Currently, Elizabeth is exploring going to Evergreen State College because she likes their Native American and Indigenous Studies program. She also appreciates that the university shares her personal values.
However she uses her many talents and wherever she goes, Elizabeth will certainly lead with her values and her passions to build more connected and compassionate communities.