When Travis Henschen, ‘12, graduated from Richmond with a degree in international studies, he thought he might want to go to law school, or perhaps consider a career in the Foreign Service.
Instead, he accepted a teaching fellowship at an independent school in his hometown of Baltimore to be near to his family. As he spent time in the classroom, Henschen discovered that aspects of his Richmond education prepared him to teach others. “It wasn’t my goal to go into education, but looking back at it now, I had a lot of experiences that made me realize that it was what I wanted to do,” Henschen said.
Henschen’s international studies major allowed him to take classes in a number of different areas, including history and foreign languages, and many had community connections incorporated into the curriculum. He volunteered as a tutor throughout his four years and served as a Spanish teaching assistant, which gave him a brief taste of life as an educator.
But he cites his experiences on the debate team as the most formative for him. “Debating allowed me to deeply investigate and research huge issues plaguing our country and the world; it gives you a voice and a sense you can do something politically,” he said.
While he started out teaching in an independent school, Henschen quickly realized that he wanted to make a contribution toward addressing equity issues facing students his hometown. In addition to his teaching, he began working for Higher Achievement, a non-profit that provides out-of-school opportunities for middle school youth. A few years later, he spent a year as a Higher Achievment center director before returning to the classroom last year, teaching government and history at an independent school.
Beyond to being devoted to addressing equity issues, Henschen’s time at Richmond and as a urban classroom teacher have also led him to believe that an innovative approach to education is necessary in order for all students to succeed.
In addition to his full-time work in the classroom, he serves as co-founder of a team of public school educators, lawyers, designers, and technologists who are working toward opening a new charter school, the Da Vinci Collaborative. The team also includes UR alum, Chaz Barracks, ‘11.
“We’re moving away from using the word school because it will function more like a community hub,” he said. “Students and community members would come into our shared space. It would always be buzzing with activity from students, to community volunteers, to small businesses who co-locate in our space and potentially provide internships.”
The Collaborative is also considering providing services in the school building, such as daycare, job opportunities, medical services, or a food co-op, with the goal of meeting basic student needs in order for them to be prepared to learn. “Students can’t achieve deeper project-based learning or learn the STEM skills our economy is demanding without having their basic needs met,” Henschen said.
The project is named for Leonardo Da Vinci because of its emphasis on the value of interdisciplinary learning, which Henschen said, “was definitely cultivated in me at Richmond.”
The group was a finalist in XQ, the Super School Project competition, and now is in the process of raising start-up funding and developing a governance structure, with the goal of opening the Da Vinci Collaborative in 2018.
While Henschen’s career path isn’t one he envisioned as a Richmond student, he has no regrets. “I have grown to love teaching, and living in Baltimore, and I feel I bring a unique skill set to the work because I didn’t take a traditional path to education,” he said.
“Education is the only institution that touches a person’s life for a long period of time, in a sustained way,” Henschen said. “We need to reimagine what it can be for communities through innovative education projects going on around the country.”
“I think there’s a movement toward rethinking how we treat young people in society, with more respect and more responsibility. If you give them that responsibility, they will rise to meet whatever challenges face them.”
Photo: Travis Henschen, center, with founding members of the Da Vinci Collaborative. Photo by Maya Earls.