Investing in Disadvantaged Youth in the United States (Partnerships Series No. 6)

Growing local economies requires many different ingredients, but one of the most important ones is a skilled workforce, especially among youth. Skills tend to be acquired through the education system. As part of a series on increasing Rotary’s impact through partnerships, innovation, and evaluation, this brief tells the story of an innovative program in Washington, DC that is improving writing skills for high school seniors in public schools and preparing them for college in part with support from Rotary.

A student presents his papers at One World Education's Fair
A student presents his papers at One World Education’s Fair

The United States benefitted for decades from one of the most skilled workforce in the world, but there are concerns that this is not the case anymore. Within the US, the District of Columbia has been struggling and often ranks at the bottom of the National Assessment of Educational Progress league tables. There are many reasons for the poor performance of the District. In spite of major improvements in economic development in the last decade, a substantial share of its population remains poor, and poverty is one of the main drivers of poor performance in school. But some programs are helping.

One World Education

One World Education (OWEd) trains teachers and helps students improve their writing skills, and think about their college options at the same time. OWEd was created in 2006 by two teachers, Eric Goldstein and Emily Chiariello, who taught at one of the charter schools in Washington, DC. Their idea was to use students’ reflective writing as the foundation for what was discussed in the classroom. The model proved successful as students became more engaged and, in turn, started to develop better research, writing, and analytical thinking skills. The non-profit was launched in 2007 and has been growing.  OWEd recently signed an agreement with DCPS (District of Columbia Public Schools) to expand its programs in all public high schools in the city. As a result, OWEd has become the largest nonprofit program operating in the District’s public schools.

The program focuses on writing skills and is adapted to various grades. For example, the Grade 12 program helps students analyze, research, write argumentative essays, and lead presentations about the college and career issues that await them after graduation. It includes a comprehensive seven week coaching period. Essays written by students can serve as their Senior Project. Selected student essays are published on OWEd’s website, providing recognition for students and creating a cycle of peer-to-peer learning.

More generally, for all grades where the program is implemented (Grades 8, 10, and 12), students and teachers can access a number of resources provided by OWED, including the following:

  1. Common Core Aligned Lesson Plans: All lesson plans are created by teachers, for teachers, and are aligned to multiple research, writing, and presentation Common Core State Standards. Lessons are accompanied by rubrics for teacher evaluations and peer-to-peer reviews;
  2. Student Writer’s Notebook: the notebook leads students to analyze exemplary, peer-authored essays before guiding them through researching, outlining, drafting, and revising their own argumentative essays.
  3. Student and Educator Portals: Students and teachers will have access to easy-to-access lesson plans, rubrics, research sources, and related resources for teachers and students are available online.

Evaluating Program Impacts

Randomized controlled trials have not yet been implemented to assess the impact of the programs run by One World Education, but other data suggests that the program is having an impact. Specifically, evaluations by students and faculty at American University and George Washington University suggest gains in writing quality and self-confidence for students that have participated in OWEd’s programs.

In order to assess gains in the quality of the writing of participants, a sample of students participating in the program take a writing test before the start of the program and at the end of the program. The test is graded by university professors. Results suggest important gains after program participation.

Feedback from teachers – and more importantly students who have participated in the program is positive. For example, in the 2014 DCPS Grade 10 evaluation by students, participants reported improvements in terms of their ability to make a claim (87 percent); Provide research to support a claim (87 percent); Write (85 percent); Research information (84 percent); Analyze research (84 percent); Create an outline (79 percent); Create a draft (78 percent); Establish a research plan (75 percent); and Revise their essay (75 percent).

These and other positive evaluations of the program in partnership with two local universities have been a key factor in the agreement reached by OWEd with DCPS to substantially expand the program in grades 9, 10, and 12. All public high school students in the District in those grades will now have the opportunity to participate in the program.

How Has Rotary Helped?

Rotarians from the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, have supported the project in various ways. The club has donated funds to, and volunteered with, OWEd for several years. In 2015-16 the club’s donation will be matched with a district grant using so-called district designated funds from the Rotary Foundation.

Each year student essays are assessed by a panel of judges at a College and Career Writer’s Challenge each year. This enables students to learn how to make an argumentative pitch to a panel.  One student from each school is eligible to earn a college or vocational training scholarship, and every participating school can nominate a number of seniors to participate in the event. Rotary club and district grants will allow OWEd to provide small scholarships for college to 10 students who have written especially good essays thanks to the program.

In addition, Rotarians have participated in OWEd’s programs in a number of volunteering capacities, including as judges for the essay competitions taking place at the College and Career Writer’s Challenge.

Conclusion

In supporting OWEd, Rotary builds on the benefits from partnerships, innovation, and evaluation. OWEd itself has partnered with District of Columbia Public Schools to substantially expand the reach of its program. The program is innovative in the way writing skills for students are being developed using a range of different resources and mechanisms. Evaluations of OWEd’s programs have shown that the programs generate measurable gains in middle and high school students’ writing skills, and in their self-confidence. The program not only improved the student’s writing, but it also helps in preparing them for college and career-level writing.

For Rotarians, OWEd’s programs have also offered unique opportunities to personally support students from disadvantaged backgrounds by contributing in the programs in various ways. This had been done through donations, but also through volunteering.

4 thoughts on “Investing in Disadvantaged Youth in the United States (Partnerships Series No. 6)

  1. I appreciate the OWEd story in general and in particular the local Rotary Clubs involvement and their leveraging of Rotary District Direct Grants. Another example of Rotary’s support of possible solutions near and far. If you have a particular interest in the challenge of educating tomorrow’s leaders & citizens, I suggest you check out Bill Gate’s support of innovative education approaches.

  2. How do I find out more and I would like to see more about the curriculum? Is this something that can be used in our local high school?

    • Dear Ruth – we are discussing the possibility with One World Education to provide a digitalized version of their curriculum on the web, possibly through a Rotary grant. This would make it easier to replicate the program elsewhere. We are still at the beginning of this discussion however… I am meeting the One World Education team tomorrow, but then am off for a week traveling – we could touch base when I come back in the week of Feb 7.

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