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April 25, 2022

Adeola Whitney of Reading Partners: 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System

An Interview With Penny Bauder

As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Adeola Whitney.

Adeola “Ola” Whitney brings over 20 years of education leadership experience to the CEO role, including three prior years with Reading Partners. Prior to being named CEO of Reading Partners, Ola provided leadership around the expansion and implementation of iMentor’s college-success program, serving 10,000 pairs of students and their mentors nationally. In this role, she oversaw executive leadership in the Bay Area, Baltimore, Chicago, and New York City, and partnered with over 15 nonprofit organizations nationwide to ensure the effective application of iMentor’s program.

Before joining iMentor, Ola served as Reading Partners’ chief regional operations officer, managing 14+ executive directors across the country. Prior to this, Ola served as executive director for Playworks for the Greater New York / Greater Newark region. Ola has also held program management and regional management roles at Kaplan and McGraw Hill. Ola earned her bachelor’s degree from Oberlin college where she majored in English and African-American studies. In her spare time, Ola enjoys spending time with her husband and three children, traveling the world, and creating memories.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Ihave over 20 years of experience in education, including three prior years with Reading Partners overseeing our regional teams. I’ve also acted as the executive director for Playworks in the Greater New York / Greater Newark region and held program management roles at Kaplan and McGraw Hill.

Without exhausting my resume, my career has constantly evolved over time as I learn new ways to lead as a means of serving.

And in 2020 following the exposure of an alarming number of cases involving violence and injustice perpetrated against individuals of color, I found yet another opportunity to rise to the occasion to pursue a role as CEO in an organization focused on equity. I decided then that I would leave my role at iMentor and return to Reading Partners to help empower students, volunteers and staff in closing the opportunity gap in early childhood literacy, especially for students from historically marginalized communities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s difficult to determine the “most” interesting story that has happened to me, considering that I’ve consistently learned from the most inspiring to the most disheartening actions of people I’ve encountered. Such as in the late nineties when I first experienced the fulfillment of discovering my calling and guiding students to find theirs, while concurrently enduring microaggressions from their parents who would ask, “who is your manager?” or “what do you do when the kids aren’t here?”. In the same breath, I’ve been privileged in my career to have meaningful conversations with change agents nationwide, including Beyoncè in 2019 who affirmed my beliefs about the power of community and we shared in a heartfelt conversation about black maternal health.

If I’ve learned any lesson worth sharing, it would be that you have an opportunity to learn something from most people you meet. Deeply observing the interactions around you and the moments you find yourself in, good or bad, can provide tangible examples about how best to grow within yourself.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The next several years at Reading Partners will be characterized by bold, innovative action that will allow Reading Partners to reach exponentially more students year-over-year while becoming more integrated into the communities we partner with. Two projects that I’m most excited about are: (1) partnering with communities and innovating the ways in which we reach students and (2) advancing our REDI (race equity, diversity, inclusion) priorities both internally with staff, AmeriCorps members, and volunteers and externally in how we engage with students and families.

In the area of innovating how we reach students, we are thinking critically and creatively about how to expand the reach of our literacy tutoring curriculum and program model to positively impact more students. We are leveraging community partnerships and technology to meet students where they are, both inside and outside of school campuses. We are also considering how we grow a network of community support for students in true partnership with students, families, and communities. We know that our program is effective, but we also know that every community may have different needs and desires for how to best connect with and support students on their journeys to reaching literacy goals. Our goal is to do this work with communities not to them or for them.

I am also very excited and passionate about the work Reading Partners is doing related to REDI (race equity, diversity, inclusion). We’re at a critical turning point as a society where people are beginning to realize that diversity in the education field correlates to higher performance with students, and that diversity in many different forms and intersectionalities are assets. As such, we are putting more emphasis on our internal recruitment and hiring practices to ensure we are engaging a diverse group of individuals in this work. We are also prioritizing staff and volunteer training related to how racism manifests across systems and institutions, and specifically in our education system. And lastly, we embed equity as a critical component of all of our practices. This extends to how students engage with our curriculum, books, staff, and tutors in our reading centers to how we make decisions internally.

We are also still celebrating the recent unsolicited $20 million gift we received from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott! Our team is currently having many conversations, centered on the students and communities we partner with, about the ways we can utilize this transformational donation and we are grateful for all of the opportunities and resources we now have access to for the future.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the education field?

I was the middle school student who was impacted by the Executive Director of a nonprofit that was next door to the Black newspaper where my father worked as the Editor in Chief. Even though at the time I thought I was too good to go, the Executive Director encouraged me to enroll in his program and it changed my life. It’s the first place where I learned about the power of community to change our course which in my case was through tutoring, both on the giving and receiving ends. Over time I’ve become an authority because I recognize that we are only as impactful as we are willing to share our stories and our time to support others.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

There are many active and passionate educators all around the country who are doing groundbreaking work in education. I see a shift happening that is making people focus more on diversity, inclusion and innovative technology; all of which are valuable advancements for students.

Yet, the unfortunate reality is that the US education system does not yet do a good job of equitably serving all students. It has proven unsuccessful in providing equitable access to critical educational resources and experiences, particularly for communities that have been historically marginalized and oppressed. For example, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data, only 21 percent of fourth-graders experiencing economic disadvantages are reading proficiently. Yet, we know that literacy tutoring, particularly in grades K-3, can have a profound, positive impact on student literacy achievement. And we also know that reading is a learned skill, cultivated through systematic instruction of key skills. Taken together, we get a clear picture that students with less access to resources are not provided the opportunities they deserve or that many of their peers receive.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Five areas that I think the US education system are doing really great would be:

Public education is free for every child. While this seems simple, it’s powerful and necessary. Education is a human right that I believe everyone deserves — especially the ability to read and write.

Technological advancements. As difficult as the pandemic years have been, and particularly for students from historically marginalized communities, we are fortunate to live in a time when technological solutions can provide access to resources that otherwise wouldn’t be available to all students. For example, through key partnerships, Reading Partners has made digital libraries available to thousands of students. Additionally, at the onset of the pandemic, we rapidly developed an online tutoring platform, called Reading Partners Connects, that allowed us to deliver over 110,000 tutoring sessions last school year to students (94% of which were delivered online).

Rethinking of antiquated policies and advancement of inclusive practices.

Dedicated educators (and supporters of education like our volunteer tutors) who give their all everyday for their students.

A growing emphasis on systematic literacy instruction for elementary-aged students.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

The US should strive to distribute funds and resources more equitably. Despite civil rights era strides to integrate schools across racial divides, schools today remain segregated by race and class. When school funding is dependent on the income of surrounding communities, it creates a dynamic where more wealthy areas are able to better meet the needs of students whereas less wealthy areas face an uphill battle to provide necessary resources for students. We need to move toward a system where schools are funded based on the specific needs of the student populations in attendance. This will create a path toward equitable public education. I ultimately want to see more functional and efficient schools because this is what’s necessary for dynamic learning to take place.

Many schools are overcrowded. This has been a common problem that I’ve been noticing for years, but the pandemic has of course since added another layer of complexity.

Educators and school staff deserve more. The network of individuals who work tirelessly to care for and shape our students’ minds deserve more than the bare minimum in salary and benefits. In order to attract new talent, to retain strong educators, and to ensure teachers and staff are satisfied in their personal and professional lives, we need to make sure they are shown respect through compensation. And we need to attract educators from all different backgrounds, races, identities, to connect with and inspire our student populations.

More personalized and holistic focus on students. Other countries have proven to be extremely successful with their strategies of having more tailored curriculums for individual students. Every child is different and is going to have a different learning process/style. To try and create a “one size fits all” solution for educating students misses the complex needs and learning styles present within our classrooms.

We need education legislation that’s rooted in facts, supported by data, and created in partnership with experts and educators. Much of our legislation for educators and students has been created by people with little to no actual experience in the educational field. I want to see more legislators rely on the strengths and knowledge of people in the education field with histories of success/results.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

The US once topped lists of countries that prioritized STEM in education. But as of 2018, we rank 27th among developed nations in the number of bachelor’s degrees given in science or engineering. As our nation falls further behind in STEM initiatives, it’s clear that our methods for engaging young people in STEM aren’t working as they should. Three ways we can increase student engagement in STEM are:

Bring back wonder. Children are naturally curious, but by teaching STEM in rigid, one-size fits all curriculums, educators are taking away the joy and creativity that exists so abundantly in STEM subjects. Teachers need to invest in their relationships with students so that they can better understand what their students are passionate and curious about.

Create opportunities for choice and collaboration. When students are forced to learn in silos, STEM subjects especially can be daunting or boring. But when they can choose how they want to learn or have opportunities to collaborate and discover alongside their peers, learning becomes much more enjoyable.

Identify gaps in STEM education and fill them. As with literacy education, where there are “book deserts” and under-resourced literacy programs in schools, STEM subjects need funding and passionate educators to bring it to life in the classroom. By investing in STEM, we can work to close the opportunity gap preventing many young students from having the space and resources to fully explore topics that intrigue them.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

As of 2021, women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 28% of the science and engineering workforce. As we’re working toward a more equitable future for all, we can’t ignore the glaring gender inequality in STEM fields. Not only does this inequality mean fewer female role models in STEM for young girls to look up to, but it also perpetuates bias in hiring practices, algorithm creation, healthcare norms, and more. The problem isn’t a lack of interest or participation from girls about STEM subjects (girls and boys take STEM classes in elementary, middle, and high school at roughly equal numbers), it’s the myriad social, cultural, and environmental factors that discourage girls from pursuing STEM after high school.

With more women in STEM, we could be one step closer to gender equality. Women can provide unique perspectives to medicine and healthcare that make finding the right treatment easier for women everywhere. Women in technology and engineering can design algorithms and software better suited for women’s needs, since most software technology in the world was created with a male bias. Having more women in STEM can shift the narrative that STEM fields are just for men and create more accessible, science-based careers for women, which may also impact the gender wage gap. When we prioritize engaging girls and women in STEM subjects, the benefits are abundant.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Certain extracurricular programs, such as Girls Who Code, are doing amazing work creating opportunities for girls to explore their passions in STEM fields. But the curriculum that schools are using isn’t operating at its full potential. Even though girls and boys take science and math classes at the same rate through high school, the confidence gap begins widening in elementary school. In third grade, many girls start losing confidence in their math skills while boys are more likely to say they are strong in math by 2nd grade, before any performance differences are evident. To address the confidence gap, we need to do three things:

Invest in literacy. In many schools, the curriculum shifts from learning to read to reading to learn in third grade. We must ensure that girls have the foundational literacy skills required to read about STEM topics and begin exploring their passions before it’s too late.

Implement a growth mindset in every classroom. When girls specifically learn in a growth-mindset-oriented classroom, they’re less likely to be affected by stereotype threat. By learning that intellectual skills can be improved with effort and perseverance and that anyone who works hard can succeed, they’re more likely to try new things, maybe fail at them, but ultimately learn more deeply.

Encourage educators to help their students develop spatial skills. When kids play with toys, take things apart and put them back together again, and use their hands to learn and explore, they develop essential spatial skills that often lead to STEM-focused interests down the road. When girls have strong spatial skills, it can lead to increased confidence in their abilities and a curiosity about STEM subjects.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I believe a well-rounded education is best and that includes both STEM and the arts. STEM education is great for teaching science and technology concepts, but when you add arts into the mix, it becomes a creative, collaborative, solutions-based learning environment. STEAM is a mix of data and discovery, of empirical information and exploration, of asking “how?” but also “what if?” When STEAM is integrated into curriculums, it opens student’s minds to new, creative ways to think about real-life problems. It removes the binary thinking that you can only be good at math and science, not creativity. Ultimately, it reflects the complicated and multifaceted world we live in by meshing different subjects together into one exciting learning experience.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Ensure technological advancements in the classroom benefit all students. Of course, many schools around the country and world have adopted virtual learning and are still currently experimenting to test its benefits and drawbacks. I think students and educators need as many options as possible for creating an engaging and adaptable learning environment. Yet, many of the advancements in technology have shone a light on the digital and wealth divides that make accessing online and digital learning more accessible to some students than others.

I’d like to see more of a focus on adjusting funding models to equitably support students and adequately compensate education staff. The resource gaps have been well-documented between schools in historically marginalized communities and those in communities with higher average household income. Students and those who support them in schools deserve access to resources based on need, not zip code.

More of an emphasis on holistic/well-rounded education for students. Happy students are successful students! I’d like to see more programs and opportunities created for students to get involved. This could be clubs, extracurricular activities, sports etc., but most students I’ve come across who are active in their school community also perform well. These programs should also prioritize inclusivity to ensure all students feel safe, welcome, and seen in their educational environments no matter their backgrounds, neighborhoods, religion, identity, etc.

Mental health/self care initiatives. Of course we are living in unprecedented times and our educational systems across the country have borne the brunt of this. I’d like to see more qualified mental health professionals being normalized in the educational space. Let’s banish these outdated stigmas as they relate to health and wellness. I think students and teachers would benefit from this. The recent trend of public icons like Simone Biles speaking out about mental health could have a powerful destigmatizing effect for millions of people around the country, but we’ll want to ensure that students have the support structures they need in place so they can properly prioritize their own mental health when needed.

Again, going back to one of my earlier points from a previous question, I definitely think that education legislation needs to be created by individuals with actual experience and success in the educational field. What’s the point in having policy makers make these crucial decisions for students and teachers if they don’t even have a background in the field?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The best leaders listen.” I am undoubtedly shaped by the perspectives and the insights of the students and the people that I have the privilege to support and lead. I’ve learned that management is really the understanding of people and the psychology of how we all work together.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Arlan Hamilton

Bozoma St John

Mackenzie Scott

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out our website, as well as our social media handles @ReadingPartners on Instagram & Twitter!

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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