Highlander Charter School hires Simona Simpson-Thomas as new superintendent

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 3/28/24

A little over two years after being denied for a consulting job by a split vote of the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee, Simona Simpson-Thomas returns to the East Bay to lead Highlander Charter School.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Register to post events

If you'd like to post an event to our calendar, you can create a free account by clicking here.

Note that free accounts do not have access to our subscriber-only content.

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.

Highlander Charter School hires Simona Simpson-Thomas as new superintendent


After leading Highlander Charter School as superintendent for 20 years, Rose Mary Grant is passing the torch to a successor whose own career began at the same school.

Simona Simpson-Thomas, who worked as a classroom teacher at Highlander from 2005 to 2016 and went on to grow a career in educational administration and consulting (including a role as Director of Multiple Pathways for the Providence Public School Department and as a curriculum developer for the Rhode Island Department of Education), took over as superintendent effective March 11. Grant will remain on the staff in a supporting role until retiring on June 30.

“I am energized by the possibilities of actualizing the vision of social justice and bringing new life and ideas into Highlander, which already has a longstanding vision of accessibility, empowerment, and excellence,” Simpson-Thomas said in a press release announcing the transition. “I strongly believe in the transformative power of education and look forward to furthering the mission of Highlander Charter School alongside its dedicated staff, students, and community. Together, we will work towards creating a just and equitable society in which all students can flourish.”

A different educational experience, growing in demand
Over the years, Highlander has seen significant growth in its enrollment and demand for its services.

Their original building in Providence educated around 200 students in grades K-8 when Grant started in the early 2000s. It now encompasses a Pre-K through 6th grade program (the only charter school to offer Pre-K), and has 272 students. They opened their middle/high school in Warren around a decade ago, which now houses 355 students in grades 7 through 12.

According to Grant, the school has already received over 3,500 applicants for the upcoming school year. Of those, only 40 to 50 will be chosen for placement, which occurs via blind lottery on April 1.

“It tells us something about charter schools but it also tells us something about traditional urban public schools,” Grant said in a recent interview.

Although readers of this publication will likely know of Highlander because of its Warren campus, Grant said that the school’s physical location is one of the few similarities among nearby schools.

“When parents are looking into us, they will say they’re looking for a more diverse place for their student,” she said. “I try to explain that we’re not ‘more diverse.’ If you look at Barrington, we’re the opposite. We’re not a diverse setting, we’re an urban setting. We mirror what the Providence public schools look like, pretty much.”

As mandated by their charter, 75% of the students come from Providence, with the remainder coming from anywhere else in the state. Of those students, around 80% are eligible for free and reduced lunch, around a third of the students at the Warren campus speak English as a second language, and the majority of the student body is comprised of students of color.

Over the years, Grant said Highlander has expanded its opportunities for students to earn professional credentials, such as OSHA certifications through the Rhode Island Builders Association, as well as college credits through URI and CCRI, and just launched their first career and technical education (CTE) pathway, which strives to prepare students to become teachers; ultimately with the hope that they will return to teach at Highlander.

“We’re trying to build that pipeline of educators who look more like our kids,” said Grant. “Because when you listen to our kids, that’s what they want. They want educators who look like them and have similar experiences.”

A mission of racial equity and social justice
Readers may remember Simpson-Thomas from a recent controversy in October of 2021, when she was narrowly denied a consulting job by the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee by a 5-4 vote. The job would have charged her to train teachers for a professional development program she designed to lead to better outcomes for students, including a portion dedicated to promoting better understanding of issues regarding systemic racial inequities. Simpson-Thomas criticized the denial as a racially-motivated decision at the time.

At Highlander, by contrast, promoting practices that lead to a better mutual understanding of race, ethnicity, and cultural differences among the student body and their interactions with the world is a primary mission of the school; and one she is excited to lead.

“We do serve primarily students of color. I think the mission, though, is for all students,” she said. “Particularly, we have a majority of white teachers as well. When we think about culturally relevant practices, not only are we embedding that in the school and emphasizing that with out students, but recognizing that it’s a shift. If we want to create a society of really understanding different demographics, it is a requirement for us all to be culturally responsive.”

Simpson-Thomas said that the challenge for her moving forward will be to find ways to creatively implement those ideals within the same curricula that is mandated to be taught by all public school districts in the state.

“Our mission is around social justice, so how does that look different if we’re still under the same regulations as other schools?” she said. “I think I’m looking forward the most on how to balance the two, and what does that look like? To make sure that all students have access to high quality curriculum, that teachers are not feeling as though they have to create that, but how do we make it ‘Highlander-ized’ to be able to really embed the social justice mission and make that really clear so we have a different way of standing out.”

Financial difficulties and misconceptions
Simpson-Thomas and Grant agreed that one of the biggest misconceptions that people have about Highlander, and about charter schools in general, is that they operate differently than traditional public schools, or that they are not public schools at all.

“We are public schools, and we are still held accountable,” Simpson-Thomas said. “We still have RIDE reports, we still have state assessments, we are not private or autonomous and we still have regulations to follow.”

The biggest differences between traditional public school districts and charters, they said, are mostly disadvantageous in nature.

For one, charters do not receive tax dollars from the municipalities in which they are located. The majority of their funding comes from the state, with a small percentage from the federal government. Districts that send their students to Highlander do shoulder a percentage of the tuition cost of that student, but that can be tricky if the student moves during their tenure. For example, a student coming from Cranston would bring a higher amount of funding than a student coming from Central Falls, because the former pays a higher portion of the tuition costs than the latter.

“If we have a kid from Cranston…and next year they move to Central Falls, my budget has just decreased in revenue,” Grant said.

Grant added that charters are required to pay for the maintenance of their own facilities, which along with higher transportation costs has put significant strain on their budget. Particularly in light of the Washington Bridge crisis, which greatly affects Highlander since students are transported back and forth between Providence and Warren.

“That’s a significant amount of our per pupil cost that goes towards things that, in a traditional public school, do not,” Grant said.

She also lamented that charter schools are capped at a 30% reimbursement rate for school construction and rehabilitation projects, compared to public districts, like Bristol Warren, which gets a minimum of 63% reimbursement (the rate is based on the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch); even though Highlander has a much higher percentage of such students.

Even with these challenges Grant, who has a background in special education, said she looked back on her career at Highlander with pride for what she helped build, which includes a special education program that she finds particularly successful.

“One of the things that attracted me to Highlander was the opportunity to build a school where students would get what students whose families had means were able to get,” she said. “Specialized reading, tutoring, occupational therapy, speech language therapy; we built that here.

“When parents sit around the table and cry and say we begged for our students to get this support and weren’t able to get that support and are so thankful, I just feel like we’ve accomplished what we set out to do.”

2024 by East Bay Media Group

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.