Northeast College Prep K-8: Cultivating Strong Relationships

Northeast College Prep K-8: Cultivating Strong Relationships


Location: Minneapolis, MN

Type of school: Public charter school

Grade levels: K–8

Number of students: 373

A Responsive Classroom school since: 2014

Northeast College Prep is a tuition-free public charter school that serves a student body that is both diverse and disadvantaged—fourteen primary languages are spoken and 98% of their students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school was started in 2014 by two teachers who believed there was a better way after seeing their students failed by outdated institutional practices. They wanted to create a school committed to social-emotional learning with an emphasis on relationships between teachers, students, and their families. “We decided from the beginning: we’re going to be a Responsive Classroom school,” Erika Sass, one of the school’s co-founders, explains.

Here are some ways Northeast College Prep has used the Responsive Classroom approach to meet its stated mission to ensure strong academic, social-emotional, and talent development in every member of its diverse student body.

Teacher Language

Northeast College Prep is committed to training all their teachers in the Responsive Classroom approach within a year of being hired—either the summer before or the summer after their first year. This fosters schoolwide consistency in which students hear similar messages from adults throughout the school, regardless of whether they are talking to a math teacher, PE teacher, special education teacher, or substitute teacher. This consistency is reinforced by school leaders who act as instructional coaches and offer constructive feedback (Sass describes the school as having “a culture of giving and receiving feedback”). Sentence starters for reminding, reinforcing, and redirecting language are also posted at the back of classrooms so teachers have helpful visual cues during the rush of the school day.

Consistent teacher language throughout the school is a major part of Northeast College Prep’s pedagogical philosophy because, as Sass puts it, “What we say and how we say it shapes both the classroom culture and the school culture—and ultimately the students’ experience.”

Morning Meeting and Responsive Advisory Meeting

Students also know what to expect from their schedule. Every classroom in the school starts the day with Morning Meeting (in elementary) or Responsive Advisory Meeting (in middle school); elementary students also end each day with closing circle. “It’s a really consistent way for kids to navigate their day,” describes Sass. Because students know what to expect, they can feel more comfortable in their learning environment and are better prepared for the day of learning ahead.

Intrinsic Motivation

One key way Northeast College Prep sets students up for success is by teaching them to be intrinsically motivated learners. Sass acknowledges that this can be difficult for new teachers who are used to extrinsic forms of motivation, but instructional coaches work with everyone in the building on replacing that “piece of candy, tally mark, or raffle ticket” with “words that will reinforce [positive] behavior.” According to Sass, “Teachers notice after a while, ‘This is actually way less to manage because I don’t have to track and tally all these things; I can just use my words.’” Supporting students in this way not only sets students up to be curious learners, but it also helps teachers have positive interactions with their students.

Strong Relationships

These positive interactions are a big deal because the main priority at the school is cultivating strong relationships. This starts with fostering strong relationships between staff members; during summer professional development sessions, the staff holds a daily Morning Meeting or Responsive Advisory Meeting for educators to connect, have fun, and get to know each other better. Cultivating strong relationships at Northeast College Prep also includes connecting with families—posing the question “What do you want in a school?” and incorporating caregivers’ responses into the way the school runs.

Most importantly, it is about the adults in the school creating strong bonds with their students. Northeast College Prep started out as a K–3 school, then added one grade level each year, and some educators have moved up with their students to the next grade level. The opportunity to teach students for multiple years has made a tight-knit community that much closer. One measure of their success in fostering these relationships is the 2023 graduating class: students who joined the school community as kindergarteners in 2014 just graduated middle school after nine years at Northeast.