Our Sisters’ School Community Core Program
Our Sisters’ School (OSS) is an independent, tuition-free, non-sectarian middle school whose mission is to educate and inspire economically disadvantaged girls from the New Bedford are. The Community Core (CC) program, with its emphasis on Social Emotional Literacy (SEL), is the main fabric of the School; it is woven throughout all activities.
Start of the 2020-2021 School Year
Our Community Core school focuses on four core values – Excellence, Community, Citizenship, and Leadership. From these core values flow 58 unique SEL skills or tools, such as Receive Feedback Openly, Be Inclusive, and Honor Emotions. The core values and the aggregate set of SEL tools instill valuable life skills and a mindset of achievement in our students, all within a safe, supportive and academically challenging environment.
Building Community. We purposefully show how we value the thoughts and feelings of every person in our community.We have the power to build positive self-esteem and Excellence in others as well as ourselves. We seek to become the best versions of ourselves and we compassionately help and encourage every person in the community to do the same.
Citizenship: Service + Activism is essential to the good of the community. We help in big ways and in small ones, not for our own personal gains or recognition, but because we believe in justice and aim to be generous people.
Leadership comes in many forms, all of them valuable. We build on our leadership strengths, work to improve our leadership challenges, and encourage leadership of all kinds in every person in our community.
Most importantly OSS is an educational institution dedicated to girls, ages 10-14, in grades 5-8, all of whom represent the underserved populations of New Bedford. The School focuses on the development of the whole child with the goal of helping each student become a confident, successful woman who understands her own capabilities and potential. A critical aspect of our program is to instill a sense of purpose to the community combined with a strong sense of self. Central to our mission is providing our students with an extraordinary educational experience, as well as transformative opportunities, by investing in our most valuable resources – our people, our programs and our greater New Bedford campus.
Core Value Tools
OSS was founded by a team of community-minded citizens who chose to invest in the economically disadvantaged girls of New Bedford, Massachusetts. They created a middle school (grades 5-8) that welcomed its first students in the Fall of 2008; and since that first class graduated in 2011, our alumnae continue to pursue academic excellence and professional satisfaction while contributing to their communities.
New Bedford is one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, with a 2019 poverty rate of 21.1%, more than twice as high as the Massachusetts state average poverty rate of 9.4%. In the 2004-2005 school year, low-income students dropped out at “six times the rate of high-income students” (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004). It has also been documented that “the poverty rate of youth in New Bedford was 34.1% in 2015,” resulting in a high number of dropouts with little chance for a better future.
The need to provide these young women the opportunity for educational achievement is critical and ongoing. Throughout its history, OSS has met this need. The School’s success is evident in the successes of our graduates. In a city with a high school graduation rate of 81% and a college enrollment rate of 50% (per 2019 Mass DOE report), OSS’s alumnae record of 100% high school graduation and college acceptance rates (among the 90% who applied to college) demonstrates that an OSS education makes a profound difference.
OSS offers small classes; personalized guidance; careful development of each student’s study skills; a thoughtfully crafted, differentiated, experiential and integrated curriculum in all areas including the Arts, Humanities, STEAM (Science Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) Lab, and an Outdoor Classroom (based on NatureExplore); an almost 10-hour day with built-in after-school programs; students’ community participation; and opportunities for family involvement.
Community Core Components at OSS
Community Core Camp is the start of our school year. Students and staff go on an overnight retreat to deepen our understanding of the OSS core values, recommit ourselves to an environmental ethic, and practice working and learning together outdoors before classes being on the New Bedford campus.
Driftwood September 2018
East Beach September 2019
- Advisory is a weekly block during which students meet in small, intimate groups of mixed-grade learners (5/6 and 7/8) to explicitly study and practice the social and emotional literacy skills known as Community Core tools that help us live our core values. Example: Honor Conversation Sensitivity – ensuring that each person in the School is thoughtful with what they say – it is hard to take things back after they’ve been put out there.
- Community Meeting is an all-school gathering every Monday and Friday when we share important news, announcements, appreciations, and use of Community Core tools.
- The BIG/LITTLE program connects pairs or trios of older and younger students together for structured experiences and mentorship that often blossom into mutual support and friendship.
- Morning Meetings are held every Monday morning during an extended Homeroom block by grade level. It is an opportunity for each grade cohort to connect, build community, problem-solve, and prepare for the week ahead.
- We integrate use of, and reflection on, Community Core tools into daily classroom instruction, outside service and leadership projects, family events, and all other parts of life at OSS.
- Another pillar of the OSS experience is the “Community as Campus” approach, designed to bring students into almost daily contact with a wide variety of individuals and organizations from the city in which they live. Our students are active in venues such as STEM4 Girls held at UMass Dartmouth, robotics competitions, and as student presenters at the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS) conference, held annually.
- Volunteerism: Each OSS family is required to contribute 15 hours of community service directly to the School each year. Whether cleaning, organizing, chaperoning, or making repairs, families are directly participating, and in this way are building community. Similarly, each OSS student must complete at least 15 hours of service annually in the local community. OSS provides regular and varied kinds of opportunities so that students can enjoy the act of volunteering while participating in an activity they love. Whether helping out at a pet shelter or passing out water at a 10k road race to support Buzzards Bay, or providing translation services at the Immigrants’ Assistance Center, students are involved with community initiatives, which is healthy for everyone involved.
- In addition to academic aspirations, OSS promotes citizenship values such as honesty, integrity, empathy, respect for others, diversity, and community service.
- We see to build community not only during classes but also in our “Gray Areas:” hallways, the lunch area and during recess – typically overlooked times and places. In these Gray Areas, we make a special effort to connect with others, be inclusive, and keep our eye toward building community.
Learning to solder with a NUWC Engineer
Conducting research at the Whaling Museum
Sailing Lessons at Community Boating Center
The target student population includes up to 72 girls from Greater New Bedford, ages 10-14, in grades 5-8. The School welcomes girls from diverse faiths, races, and cultures and the demographic diversity is reflective of the Greater New Bedford population and all students accepted to the School are from families eligible for fuel assistance programs, the criteria for which are tied to Federal Poverty Guidelines. For this current school year, the student, self-identified ethnicities by category are as follows: Multi-racial, 41%; Hispanic/Latinx, 22%; Caucasian or Portuguese, 21%; African American, 9%; Cape Verdean, 3%; Asian/Pacific Islander, 2%; and Middle Eastern, 2%.
OSS is now in its 13th year of operation and has 140 graduates. At present, 64 of our graduates are in secondary school. OSS’s most recent graduating class, the Class of 2020, is continuing their education at the following secondary schools: Westover School (1); Phillips Academy Andover (1); Bishop Stang High School (3); Dartmouth High School (1); Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School (6); New Bedford High (Academy of Honors) (1); Bristol Aggie (2); Old Rochester Regional (1); and Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, CO (2).
Additionally, 47 OSS graduates are now attending college with 14 who have graduated, and three who are enrolled in graduate programs. From the OSS Class of 2016, the latest class to enter college, our alumnae are attending Brandeis University, Bristol Community College, Dean College, Pennsylvania State University, Spelman College (2), UMass Dartmouth, Salve Regina University, Rhode Island College, and Wentworth Institute of Technology.
Recognitions and Awards
In 2019, OSS received accreditation from the Association of Independent Schools of New England (AISNE) after much hard work and a year-long process of self-evaluation and strategic planning. AISNE commended OSS on its “audacious mission” and all that has been accomplished during its relatively young existence.
In 2019, the New England League of Middle Schools (NELMS) named OSS a spotlight school, one of only 29 in New England. Their reviewers “were compelled to note the profound uniqueness of OSS…has capitalized on its small size to deliver a stellar educational opportunity to underserved urban middle-school-age girls.” This award recognizes schools that have a record of effective teaching and learning for young adolescents, and a consistency in implementing middle level best practices.
In 2017, Chronicle, a Boston-based news show on WCVB, featured a series highlighting the School. This and other videos on our website help illustrate our program.
OSS is also an active member of the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools. Through this organization, OSS has established relationships with other US-based all girls’ schools and a girls’ school in South Africa. The School was also invited to participate in the Passport to STEM Challenge, which is a collaborative project hosted through the US Embassy in Belgium and includes five US schools (OSS is one of the five) and five schools in Belgium.
Recommendation for replication and/or adaptation
We recognize that, as a self-supporting, independent school, there are both unique opportunities and challenges for the School to achieve its mission. With that in mind, we have established the following goals in our current three-year strategic plan:
- Attend to our curriculum – augment and refine our unique and dynamic academic curriculum with focused attention to social justice and community outreach
- Attend to the well-being of our community members – evaluate and enhance existing internal and external student support systems, i.e., academic and holistic support
- Strive for diversity and inclusion that reflects our community – ensure that the student body represents the demographic makeup of the economically disadvantaged population of New Bedford
- Innovate and adapt with courage to fulfill our mission in the face of unprecedented disruption – adapt curriculum and deliver through effective remote learning
- Message the story and practices of Our Sisters’ School – ensure all media content is effective and reflective of our program
- Engage in strategic financial management – orchestrate annual appeals, fund-raising events, and stewardship efforts to meet the annual budget required to support innovative curriculum initiatives.
- Maintain impactful board leadership – develop a board of trustees that balances representation from community, educators, and philanthropists who actively support the OSS mission
Through the combined paths of outreach by OSS staff and community engagement, we have shared the supporting concepts and successes realized from the Community Core Program and its emphasis on Social-Emotional Literacy. Since 2016 we have documented numerous instances where details of the program have been shared with other organizations. We have hosted representatives from public and charter schools in the region, who have spent time at OSS observing all aspects of interactions and behaviors.
We have created a powerful capability, including curriculum and an approach for implementing the program. And while we are a school first and our priority is that of educating our students, our longer-term goal is to develop ready-to-go materials to share with other schools.
OSS news page videos: https://oursistersschool.squarespace.com/videos
Sarah Herman, Head of School
145 Brownell Avenue|
New Bedford, MA 02740