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Champion profile

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation fights poverty, disease and inequities to help ensure that more people around the world have opportunities to lead healthy and prosperous lives.

Supporting education is a critical component of that mission. In the U.S., the Gates Foundation is helping more young people access higher education through long-term investments that support students at every stage of their learning journey. By helping more students stay on track to graduate from high school and prepare for success in college and career, the Gates Foundation has a lifelong impact on young people.

Through its broad and multifaceted approach, the Gates Foundation is working to address systemic educational inequities that depress high school and college graduation rates. With its nonprofit partners—including City Year—the Gates Foundation also has responded rapidly to help schools adapt to ongoing learning disruptions triggered by the pandemic, which disproportionately have affected students who are Black, Latino or whose families have experienced poverty.

“From the beginning of our partnership with the Gates Foundation, we’ve shared a commitment to advancing educational equity that focuses on how schools, rather than students, must change to improve outcomes,” says City Year CEO Jim Balfanz.

Our collective work as we partner to address educational and racial inequities entails a research-to-practice-to-policy system for K-12 education that includes: ongoing research to better understand both the connections between social, emotional and academic development, and the optimal conditions for student success; bringing together education leaders to address challenges shared across systemically under-resourced schools through the Network for School Improvement (NSI) and an Action Community, which was created in response to the pandemic to support schools in welcoming students back to classrooms; and advancing the role of student success coaches to help students navigate reengagement with school in a post-pandemic world.

Shared interest in how students learn

From the start, the Gates Foundation and City Year have had a shared interest in how students learn, and the ties between students’ academic development and their social and emotional development, which include skills like teamwork and decision-making. Funding by the Gates Foundation led to a study published in 2020 by the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education that provided new evidence of how social and emotional skills and academic outcomes move in lockstep. The study found that the more time students spend with City Year AmeriCorps members, the more likely they are to improve on social, emotional and academic skills and on attendance, with those furthest behind benefitting the most.

Drawing on insights from that research, City Year created a guide, with the support of the Gates Foundation and the Oak Foundation, to provide practitioners and policymakers with practices, tools and recommendations to help students strengthen academic, social and emotional skills, which are key to success in and outside the classroom. This work is emblematic of City Year’s research-to-practice-to-policy system. City Year and the Everyone Graduates Center are engaged in the second phase of this work, which is exploring student and practitioner experiences during COVID-19, the role that relationships and learning environments play in supporting student success, and students’ social, emotional and academic development over time.

Network for School Improvement

Alongside this work, the Gates Foundation provided City Year and the Everyone Graduates Center with a seed grant in 2018 as part of its NSI initiative, which creates the time and space for educators to exchange and elevate promising practices that boost student outcomes and advance shared goals. A second five-year, multimillion dollar grant followed in 2019, accelerating City Year’s work through the NSI to help students complete eighth grade on track to high school graduation and postsecondary success.

Guided by City Year, NSI school leaders use continuous improvement practices, which rely on a repeated cycle of planning, implementing and studying outcomes, and adjusting approach to drive iterative changes that lead to more productive learning environments.

We think the models and approaches these organizations are honing now will continue to expand opportunities for students post-pandemic, too.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's annual letter in January, commenting about City Year and two other nonprofits

Through its efforts, the network helps schools move closer to becoming places where students feel engaged with learning, prepared to advocate for themselves and their learning needs, and contribute to their school community—conditions that lead to improved academic achievement in the form of higher grades and higher rates of course completion.

City Year seeks regular feedback from educators as part of the process. In a recent survey, 80% of educators reported feeling very or extremely confident in implementing continuous improvement practices, while a survey last year showed about 80% of educators felt their work was making a difference for the students they serve.

Common challenges across schools

Early results from NSI schools, which focused on how schools attend to the social and emotional needs of their students, included school improvements that led to 60% of schools showing higher rates of students on track to graduate, a measure that takes into account proficiency in English language arts and math, attendance, and social and emotional development. School improvements also reduced educator use of punitive disciplinary practices, like suspensions. City Year is building upon the early success of this work to validate and expand its model in Milwaukee, Tulsa, Jacksonville and additional cities.

The NSI has strengthened City Year’s partnership with schools, enabling the organization to move quickly to support them during COVID-19 and provide educators with more ways to reinforce students’ sense of belonging, resilience and engagement.

“Our school leaders were most concerned about how to care for their students, their teachers and their communities in the wake of the pandemic,” says Paola Deliz Félix Encarnación, City Year’s national leader for the NSI. “The network was a trusted resource they could look to for help and additional resources.”

Early in the pandemic, that support included finding ways for families to celebrate eighth graders completing middle school after COVID-19 upended planned ceremonies.

Along with supporting NSI schools, City Year and the Everyone Graduates Center mobilized a new virtual network in response to the pandemic to benefit non-NSI schools, called the Action Community. Using best practices and adapting them for the hybrid nature of schools during COVID-19, the community brings together schools from across the country to develop solutions to help support students, including through shared resources, like the practitioner and policymaker guide developed with insights from the research conducted by the Everyone Graduates Center.

The student success coach model

A shared urgency to help schools adapt to shifting conditions and effectively support students during the pandemic has deepened our partnership. Last fall, the Gates Foundation highlighted City Year and two other nonprofits, College Advising Corps and Saga Education, as supporting its efforts to help students stay on track to earn a college degree, and not lose the opportunity to graduate, because of COVID-19.

“We think the models and approaches these organizations are honing now will continue to expand opportunities for students post-pandemic, too,” the Gates Foundation said in their annual letter in January.

Building on that work, the Gates Foundation also has provided a seed grant to support planning and work to deepen City Year’s impact and build recognition, funding and demand for the student success coach model across the country.

In the past few years, including during a time of unprecedented disruptions to education, the Gates Foundation’s partnership has proven to be a catalyst to advance the most critical and innovative areas of City Year’s work. We look forward to continuing our collaboration in service of creating equity, inclusion and opportunity for every student.

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