Education innovations for disadvantaged students in Washington DC

Can internship and mentorship programs help students graduate from high school and prepare them for colleges and careers? What type of support is needed for the most disadvantaged youth, including those who suffer from homelessness? Do tutoring programs help students learn? How can we improve the research, writing, and presentation skills of middle and high school students? 

These are some of the questions considered in a new series of briefs on innovations in education in the greater Washington DC, area of the United States.  The series is launched jointly by the World Bank Group’s (WBG) education team, the WBG Community Connections Program (the WBG’s outreach program to the local community), and the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill. We hope to contribute to better education outcomes not only in the DC area but also elsewhere by showcasing innovative programs that make a positive difference in the life of students and how well they learn.

Why focus on DC? The WBG’s mission is to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. While living standards in DC are better than in the developing work, poverty rates remain high and only about two thirds of students complete high school according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. While improvements have been achieved in recent years, innovations are needed to improve education and employment outcomes for disadvantaged children and youth.

The  briefs, in a small but meaningful way, will hopefully contribute to debates on how to improve education by featuring successful programs and policies. The programs and policies featured in the briefs will likely be relevant for other regions in the United States and developing countries with similar challenges.

The first set of briefs in the series feature non-profits that benefited from monitoring and evaluation grants from the WBG’s Community Connections Program or pro bono evaluation support provided by World Bank staff. The Latin America Youth Center (LAYC), One World Education, and the Urban Alliance are among the nonprofits featured in the briefs released on the occasion of the WBG’s Volunteer Awareness Day on May 10.

Below is a brief description of the work of the three organizations together with links to the briefs on these organizations.

LAYC: Some 17,400 young adults aged 18 – 24 who are from the Washington Metropolitan Area are disconnected from work and school. These youth are often from low-income families, are not in school, and are out of work. They typically face multiple challenges, including homelessness, issues with the courts, or substance abuse. These challenges prevent them from successfully transitioning into adulthood. LAYC uses an innovative approach called the ‘Promotor Pathway’ to target high-risk youth.  It’s a long-term, intensive, holistic case management and mentorship intervention which has led to positive changes in school enrollment, birth rates, and homelessness.

One World Education: During the 2015-16 school year, One World Education worked with District of Columbia Public Schools as a partner for the ‘Cornerstone’ initiative. Cornerstones are high-quality, in-depth core curricular experiences such as argumentative writing programs. Cornerstones aim to provide rigorous content to students, improved professional development for teachers, and continuity and consistency across grades and subjects. Some 5,200 students in 15 DC public schools in grades 10 and 12 have already participated in the One World Education programs.

Urban Alliance:  This non-profit organization, which operates in DC, Baltimore, Chicago, and Northern Virginia, facilitates the transition of disadvantage youth from high school to college to employment. It does so by running a comprehensive early employment program that provides access and exposure to professional networks for youth enrolled in the program. Urban Alliance staff train and mentor the students through their first professional employment opportunities, which help propel them to future success. Over 90 percent of Urban Alliance alumni go on to college. The WBG has participated in the Urban Alliance program since 1997 and supported over 300 students through internships. Results from an external evaluation suggest that the Urban Alliance program improves high school graduation rates and the likelihood that students will go to college after graduation.

The objective of the series of briefs is to document these and other successful programs, so that they can inform education policy and practice not only in DC, but also elsewhere. If you are living in the Greater Washington, DC, area and if you have an idea for a potential brief in the series, please let me know or post your idea in the comment section below.

This post is reproduced with minor changes from a post published by the author on May 9, 2016 on the World Bank Education for Global Development blog.

 

 

Evaluation is essential to assess what works and share stronger stories

Readers of this blog know that I have emphasized for some time the need to strengthen a culture of evaluation in Rotary. Evaluations should be undertaken not only for our service projects, but also to assess how our clubs meet, work, and grow – or wither away. This post is about a recent evaluation of an education project supported by my club, and how the evaluation is proving to be useful not only for the local nonprofit we worked with, but also for our club and more generally for practitioners and policy makers working in the field of education.

OWED celebration
Photo of OWEd scholarship winners with Brian Pick, Chief of Teaching and Learning for the District of Columbia Public Schools, and Dave Paris, member of the Board of OWEd.

For several years my club has supported One World Education (OWEd), a great nonprofit based in Washington, DC. OWEd runs the largest argumentative writing program in public and charter schools in the city. The nonprofit reached 5,800 middle and high school students this past school year. The aim of the program, which runs for 4-5 weeks in the schools, is to improve the research, writing, and presentation skills of the students, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and do not do very well in school.

In previous years, our support to OWEd consisted in providing a bit of funding and volunteering at some of their events. This year, we provided college scholarships for some of the high school students (seniors) who participated in the program and worked especially hard. But we also did more. Together with a team at American University, we designed an evaluation of the program to better measure its impact. For more than 550 students, teachers collected essays written in class before and after the program. The essays were graded by professors and instructors in the Department of Literature at American University. This enabled us to assess whether the program made a difference in the writing skills of middle and high school students.

The evaluation demonstrated that the program has a positive impact. The program generates statistically significant gains in writing quality, especially for students who performed worst on the initial pre-program assignment.  The positive impact of the program was confirmed through data on the perceptions of teachers and students about the program. Two summary briefs about those evaluation results have been written and are now available for public schools and for charter schools separately.

It is clear that this type of evaluation is beneficial for the nonprofits whose programs are evaluated, as the evaluations enable the nonprofits to measure their impact, and take corrective action when needed.  The evaluations are also beneficial for our club in reassuring members that we are investing in worthwhile initiatives.

But there is more. Many others are interested in such evaluations and may learn from them, possibly generating larger impacts beyond the specific programs being evaluated. And these evaluations provide for great stories to be featured in local newspapers or magazines as well as social media, giving more visibility not only to the nonprofits and programs being evaluated, but also to the Rotary clubs that supported those evaluations.

This is what we are focusing on now – making sure that the positive results obtained by OWEd through its program are better known in Washington, DC, and beyond. We are writing short articles that document those results, and some of the stories of the students who benefited from the program.  We have secured already two placements for stories in the local media and we hope to write additional articles for national publications about the results of the evaluation. In addition, we will also prepare technical papers for academic journals. It remains to be seen whether we will be successful, but we now have a stronger story to tell thanks to the evaluation.

Finally, as mentioned, the evaluation has been summarized in two easy-to-read briefs. The two briefs, together with briefs about the work of other nonprofits operating in the field of education and skills for youth in the city, will be included in a small brief series on innovations in education in Washington, DC to be published by the World Bank. We hope that this simple brief series will help attract attention to the nonprofits doing great work in the city, while also helping practitioners and policy makers learn from the experience of successful programs.

In summary, evaluation is essential not only to help improve service projects, whether implemented by Rotary clubs or nonprofits, but also to tell stronger stories about ways to improve the lives of the less fortunate. Investing more in evaluation seems to be a win-win for nonprofits as well as service clubs.  And for Rotary as a whole, as I mentioned it in a previous series of posts on this blog, focusing more on partnerships, innovation, and evaluation seems key to achieve larger impacts.

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.