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The Oak Foundation and City Year’s innovative partnership to support all learners

Since 2015, the Oak Foundation has enabled City Year to design, implement and share practices that support the success of students who are facing adversity. This support includes the launch of City Year’s School Design Division, a joint venture between City Year and the Everyone Graduates Center (EGC) at Johns Hopkins University, to create school improvement models, tools and strategies that can be implemented in under-served communities where students with learning differences are especially vulnerable. Heather Graham, Director of the Learning Differences Programme, and Bethiel Girma Holton, Learning Differences Programme Officer and City Year alumna, share their reflections about student success and how the Oak Foundation and City Year are working together to improve outcomes for all learners including students with learning differences.

Supporting holistic student success

Early experience working in schools taught Heather Graham and Bethiel Girma Holton an important lesson that guides their work today at the Oak Foundation: every child has a diverse set of skills and knowledge and deserves a learning environment that provides them opportunities to grow, achieve and develop their unique strengths.

“I was a middle school teacher in the South Bronx during one of the early years of Teach for America,” recalls Heather. Her classroom had 35 students with a range of learning differences, including illiteracy and dyslexia.

Heather’s experience showed her that academic achievement is only one component of holistic student development. “Trying to find the supports that worked for my students gave me a great amount of humility about just how challenging it is to meet the needs of all students, and elevated my understanding of the inequities in our public education system.”

“Success is about more than how a student does on a particular test. It’s about how well they’re being set up to be engaged citizens, to be happy, to be able to pursue their own goals and advocate for themselves and their families. — Heather Graham

Bethiel served as an AmeriCorps member with City Year Boston before earning a master’s degree in social work and joining City Year staff for several years as national director of student engagement. Her experience inspired her to focus on helping teachers and caring adults create supportive, rigorous learning environments that “embrace the variability of all learners.”

Innovative partnership

“Like City Year, the Oak Foundation thinks about students holistically and what they need to be successful in a changing world,” Bethiel says. “We also share a broad view of learner variability, which is the idea that every student has a diverse set of skills. We want schools and educators to be able to respond to each student’s unique talents and potential.”

There are a number of reasons why a student might struggle to learn, including undiagnosed learning differences or challenges associated with poverty. “Some of the most marginalized learners in the United States come at the intersection of race, poverty and learning differences,” Bethiel says. City Year and the Oak Foundation are committed to serving these students in schools across the country and through the launch of Compass Academy, a public charter school in Denver, as an open source of innovation accessible for all educators.

All too often, Bethiel says, students blame themselves for their academic struggles, rather than understanding the education system may not be designed to accommodate different ways of processing information and learning. The Oak Foundation and its partners want to change that by helping students understand how they learn so they become their own best advocates for the creation of productive learning environments.

Investing in all learners

“The Oak Foundation’s investments in City Year are helping us to better meet the needs of students who attend under-resourced schools and have learning differences,” says City Year President Jim Balfanz. “The Oak Foundation’s support as a thought partner and investor has helped City Year focus more strategically on how we can enhance students’ school experience and equip schools to maximize the potential of all learners.”

“City Year’s approach makes a difference for diverse and complex learners,” Bethiel says. “The focus on building strong relationships between AmeriCorps members and students, and the impact a team of young adults has on the culture of the school—they bring such energy and joy and connection.”

Those elements are important for all learners, say Heather and Bethiel, but especially for students who have struggled in academic settings and who perhaps have felt like failures. “The optimism and sense of possibility City Year brings can transform a learning environment–for both students and adults,” says Bethiel.

“We are learning a lot from City Year’s network of schools across the country, and we share a deep commitment to expanding educational equity,” says Heather. “Importantly, our organizations are also aligned in wanting to expand the definition of student success.”

Originally published in the 2018 Annual Report.

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