Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Road Stories: What I learned visiting our partners in 2015

December 16, 2015

A high quality, broadly accessible public education is not only central to the American Dream; it is a bridge to increasing promise and prosperity in this country. I had a number of opportunities to travel the country this year and learn how our partners are doing this work. Here are just a few things I learned from my time with students, teachers, and school leaders.

Road Map Project Trip in South Seattle (March 2015)

In our home state of Washington, we’re focused on student-centered investments that ensure every child, regardless of where they were born, has an opportunity to thrive through stable families, great schools, and strong communities. I saw this come to life in the Road Map Project, a community-driven effort in one of the most diverse counties in the country that focuses on in-school and out-of-school factors that contribute to a child’s academic success.

The Road Map Project uses data in powerful ways to drive decision-making and support student success. Seven different—but geographically adjacent—school districts track a range of student success factors to create timely and actionable information, and compare district by district data to find bright spots to replicate. ALL of the seven school districts in the region are offering full-day kindergarten ahead of schedule, and school suspensions were reduced across the board. Our partners in the Road Map Project have prioritized using data to ensure they’re making smart, real-time decisions to keep students on a path to college.

Early Learning Trip to New Jersey  (April 2015)

Maximizing early learning opportunities helps prepare more children to enter school equipped for early and ongoing academic success, and key to creating a high-quality learning environment is supporting the professionalization of early childhood educators. New Jersey is leading the way in how it supports, rewards, and retains early learning teachers.

I had the honor of traveling to New Jersey with our Early Learning team, where we saw first-hand the power of treating educators as professionals and partners. The positive culture that existed in each pre-K center we visited was evident at every turn. There was a strong emphasis on peer-to-peer mentorship and career growth opportunities, and you could see that teachers felt empowered and connected to the center’s mission.

Postsecondary Trip to Texas & Tennessee (September 2015)

For too many students, the bridge to a better life that is higher education remains too narrow, too hard to navigate, and carries a toll too high for many Americans. One big reason more than 40 percent of students who start college never finish is because they arrive on campus unprepared to succeed in college-level work.

More than half of students attending two-year institutions, and one-third of students attending four-year colleges, must take developmental classes to catch up. They have to pay for these classes, but don’t actually earn credits that count toward graduation. However, in Texas and Tennessee I saw that with the right supports, all students can succeed. 

The SAILS program at Chattanooga State Community College provides support to high school seniors to help prevent the need for remediation. In the Texas New Mathways Project, students take math courses relevant to their chosen fields of study. It’s critical that we help put students on a path that is adapted to their needs, skills, and interests—and that’s why the New Mathways Project was so exciting to me.

K-12 Learning Trip to Kentucky (November 2015)

After a recent learning trip to Pikeville, I was inspired by the sense of community and an unwavering, can-do attitude from teachers at Betsy Layne High School. In eastern Kentucky, adults surrounding the students refused to accept excuses, making students grow academically and emotionally. Based on the small size of the school it seems natural, but I think this type of community would be powerful if purposefully replicated across our schools. Educators here were thinking differently, they had a mindset that the kids needed care, love, and support – and they didn’t need any lowered academic expectations. We left impressed, and motivated to pass along that sense of community and constant improvement because we saw the benefits first-hand.

Partners we visited this year help preserve education’s role as the great equalizer. We’re optimistic that with their continued effort, this country can build a bridge broad enough, accessible enough, and reliable enough to carry many more people in the United States above and beyond their current circumstances. 

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