NationSwell Leaders on the Biden Administration’s Student Debt Forgiveness Plan

On August 24, President Joe Biden’s White House announced intentions to ease student debt obligations by up to $20,000 for millions of Americans. Early details of the plan included a commitment to forgive up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt from the U.S. Department of Education for any borrower who earned less than an adjusted gross income of $125,000 ($250,000 for married couple filing jointly or head of household) in either 2020 or 2021, with Pell Grant recipients reportedly eligible to receive an additional $10,000 in relief on top of that.

While the finer points of the new debt forgiveness plan are still being hammered out, the measure is already set to have sweeping implications for those who qualify. To help make sense of the policy, NationSwell reached out to our community of experts for their reactions, and to ask if the plan goes far enough towards ensuring a more equitable playing field for millions of debt-saddled Americans.

Here are some of their responses:

NationSwell: What does the student loan forgiveness news mean in practical terms, for both workers and students? 

David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR
Similar to the enactment, further guidance, and activation of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness over the last year, this is another opportunity for economic relief and increased stability for folks who work for non-profits and anyone looking to start a career in the sector. It is also important to note that it will affect people of all ages, not just the person who is receiving loan relief. Economic relief for parents and spouses can affect whole families and communities. Student debt burden has also often been intergenerational as well. Awareness is crucial so that folks get the full benefit of this opportunity, and that’s where community-based organizations, mentors, and others need to spread the word and help folks access this.

Mohan Sivaloganathan, CEO of Our Turn:
We need a future-facing lens with respect to student debt. President Biden’s announcement provides current day relief for past issues, but the structural issues that perpetuate racial inequity still exist — such as students of color lacking financial, college, and career planning resources in middle/high school (a stark contrast to white and/or affluent students).

Zeeshan Ali, a former Our Turn student leader who recently wrote a piece on student debt:
For both workers and students, such forgiveness provides a great opportunity for upward mobility and financial sustainability. Whether it be $10,000 or $20,000, those amounts mean the difference between eating three meals a day or going hungry, being able to pay rent or becoming homeless, buying a car or walking miles to work . For current and prospective students, I believe it generates ambition within them to continue their pursuit of higher-education, knowing that attending a college is within their reach .With hope that such a culture of affordable education is prolonged, I foresee an increase in minority enrollment in educational institutions, thus closing the wealth inequality gap. Workers will feel that relief as well: I know of many friends who are working jobs that do not interest them, however, the pay of such jobs helps with their student debt. With this forgiveness, workers can have more flexibility in their career paths, and it can enable them to work in a field they want to, vs. one that they have to.

Martin Kurzweil, Vice President of Educational Transformation at Ithaka S+R:
While there are some open questions about when it will take place (as it will likely be challenged in court) and how it will operate, once in effect, President Biden’s loan forgiveness order would completely wipe out debt for millions of borrowers, many of whom have not completed their degree, are not recognizing the value of their investment, and have been shut out of ineffective existing options for reducing or cancelling their debt. Getting out from under that burden will allow those individuals to make family, financial, and educational plans that their debt has put on hold. I do worry that the forgiveness program, as seemingly simple as its criteria are, may prove administratively complicated — the process will need to be carefully designed to ensure that it does not put bureaucratic barriers in the way of individuals who would otherwise be eligible. The more the Education Department can process the forgiveness automatically, using information it (or other branches of the federal government) already has, the better. Although debt forgiveness doesn’t address the ongoing accumulation of new debt, it does put greater pressure on the administration and Congress to address problems of college affordability, wasted individual expenditures by those who don’t complete or get a credential of value, and ongoing processes for ensuring repayment and interest accumulation aren’t overwhelming. The administration’s announcement included some indications of how it plans to address income-based repayment, public service loan forgiveness, and institutional accountability, but a lot more detail is needed on those plans.

Jean-Claude Brizard, President and CEO of Digital Promise:
In many countries around the world, students don’t exit formal education saddled with debt. In practical terms, students can spend more time building the foundation for economic security and not worrying about repaying a loan that often greatly exceeds their annual income. It also allows some to enter graduate school and further their education. 

NationSwell: What are some of the next steps we’ll need to take in order to advance educational and workforce equity?

David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR:
Driving equity is about culture, structure, and systemic examination and change. We have to look at the barriers and biases that drive access, engagement, and retention. These could be economic, process driven, geographic, representative, along with other factors. And it requires deep listening, action orientation, benchmarking, communication, and marking progress and setbacks. It is a consistent pursuit and while there may be milestones, there is not an endpoint.

Dr. Noel Harmon, President and Executive Director of APIA Scholars:
We are grateful for the Biden administration’s recognition of the crippling effects of student loan debt, especially for the relief that will be directed towards the most under-represented and disadvantaged students in the educational process. While we appreciate that this is progress in providing aid to those who are most in need, we also feel that there are core problems that remain unsolved and must stay in the forefront. We need to continue to address systemic issues impacting educational equity, including financial barriers, access, and support.

Zeeshan Ali, former Our Turn student leader:
Outside of the student debt crisis that still remains, we must provide resources to marginalized communities in the form of community building, career guidance, and most of all, financial investments. I have seen it in my hometown of Palm Beach, Florida: There are mansions on one block of the street, but if you drive a block or two away, there are houses with broken windows, rundown schools, and mold-ridden recreational centers. We must allocate money towards such poverty-ridden areas to build better institutions that encourage personal development — in areas of both education and career, we need to reaffirm to the younger generation that they are not forgotten, nor do they mean any less than a student who lives in the wealthier part of town. And above everything else, we must make progressive change together, on every level. From the grassroots organizer to the President of the United States, there cannot be change if we are not unified in our efforts to make the world a better place, a place that promotes inclusion, offers opportunities of growth, and relentlessly fights for equity, for this generation and those to come. 

Mohan Sivaloganathan, CEO of Our Turn:
We need to invest in reframing the narrative around education and race. Too often, education is viewed as a critical lever for upward mobility and success — UNLESS — it is a Black, Indigenous, or Student of Color, and suddenly they are viewed as asking for a handout. The elimination of predatory higher education practices — while addressing an unjust playing field leading up to higher education — can actually forge a more prosperous, inclusive, and healthy country.

Jean-Claude Brizard, President and CEO of Digital Promise:
We need to make college more affordable and create better pathways from education to a meaningful career — one that puts young people on a path to economic security, well-being and personal agency. The Education Secretary’s push to greatly increase PELL is one good step in that direction. 

Martin Kurzweil, Vice President of Educational Transformation at Ithaka S+R::
There’s so much to do! Focusing on the federal and state level, the federal government and states ought to orient their spending and policies toward providing value with their investments in education — improving affordability as well as attainment of credentials that have labor market value. An important step is providing adequate resources to public institutions, especially those that serve large populations of students of color and lower-income students (which currently are less resourced than those serving wealthier, whiter student populations). An important issue that affects attainment is that the majority of students will earn college credit and other forms of validated postsecondary learning from more than one source, and we are terrible at reconciling all that evidence of learning and enabling seamless transfer — it results in a huge waste of time, money, and effort, and it disproportionately harms people of color and those from lower-income backgrounds. Streamlining transfer by aligning policies, providing better access to information and guidance, and reducing administrative barriers will benefit millions of individuals.

How Charles Best, CEO of DonorsChoose, Leads With Purpose

Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose — and inspire others to do the same.
Educator and entrepreneur Charles Best was crowdsourcing before it was cool.
When he started DonorsChoose, a platform that connects underfunded public school teachers with donors, the entire company operated out of the tiny classroom in the Bronx where he was a teacher.
Best says he and his colleagues would spend lunch breaks discussing how much of their own salaries they spent on paper and pencils for their students, or on trips and projects their schools couldn’t support. He knew they weren’t alone in their passion for their students’ success, and soon envisioned a way to connect motivated citizens with classrooms in need.
What began almost twenty years ago as a scrappy classroom operation in the Bronx will soon be able to boast that it has raised over a billion dollars. They’ve helped fund half a million projects in 80% of our nation’s public schools. Best says purpose has been always core to DonorsChoose’s mission, and that acting with that core value in mind has been key to his success. But as they learned in 2003, and again in 2010, a little shine from Oprah never hurts, either.
NationSwell spoke to Best on Friday. Here’s what he had to say about putting purpose into action.
NationSwell: You were a teacher in the Bronx when you started DonorsChoose. Would you be willing to share the story with me about how that idea and that inspiration came to be?
DonorsChoose Founder and CEO Charles Best: Absolutely. I taught there for five years. During my first year of teaching, like teachers everywhere, my colleagues and I would spend a lot of our own money on copy paper and pencils, and then we would talk in the teacher’s lunch room about projects we wanted to do with our students that we couldn’t personally pay for — and that might’ve been a novel we wanted all our students to read, or a field trip we wanted to take them on or a science experiment that required a couple of microscopes.
And as we were talking in the teacher’s lunch room, I just figured that there were people out there who would want to help teachers like us if they could see exactly where their money was going. This is years and years before crowdfunding was a word or a thing, but it just made fundamental sense that there are people who want to support public school classrooms but don’t really see where their money’s going, and I thought we could connect teachers like us with donors or concerned citizens along the lines of what I described.
NS: Can you talk to me a little bit about where DonorsChoose was at the end of its first year versus where it is right now in terms of its growth?
CB: DonorsChoose launched in the spring of 2000, and we were operating out of my classroom. My students were our staff members. We even used my classroom as a mail sorting center after school because we were writing letters to people trying to get the first donations on our site. And we were actually hand-addressing and compiling physical letters because it was that far back in the day. And every desk in my classroom represented a different part of the country, so we could pile up letters going to different regions and get a cheaper postal rate. In any case, end of the first year, our nerve center, our headquarters is still my classroom and we had just expanded beyond the teachers at the school where I was teaching and there were a good number, let’s say 50 or so other teachers in other parts of the Bronx who were creating projects on our site. That’s status at end of year one.
And then we’re now in year 20 and in probably just a few months we’ll cross $1 billion of giving through the site to classroom projects. More than half a million public school teachers have gotten projects funded through the site. 80% of all the public schools in the country have had teachers who have posted projects.
So we’ve grown a lot since those more humble origins 20 years ago.

“We try and infuse purpose into our work without ever feeling overly virtuous. Humility is one of our core values.” — Charles Best, CEO and founder of DonorsChoose

NS: What are the key factors behind your success?
CB: Well, we got lucky in any number of ways. I’d like to think we worked hard for the luck, but there absolutely was serious luck involved. I’ll give you just one example. In 2001, I cold-called a whole lot of reporters, and I probably had to call 100 reporters before I found one who was willing to talk to me and hear me out as I described this nonprofit that my students were helping to get off the ground. And he wrote a one paragraph story about what we were up to for Newsweek, and Oprah Winfrey’s producers saw that little paragraph and reached out.
And so in 2003, Oprah Winfrey shines her spotlight on us and in the aftermath of her segment, and I had describe it as an aftermath only because she completely crashed our site, the moment she mentioned our website, I think there’s 20,000 people that simultaneously typed our URL into their browser and we just melted down. But when we got back up again, people started calling us from different parts of the country wanting to see DonorsChoose expand to their public schools. And so that really put in motion our national expansion, which culminated in 2007 when we opened our site to all the public schools in the country. But that national expansion wouldn’t have gotten moving when it did, if not for the pure stroke of luck of Oprah’s producers reading that one little paragraph.
So that’s a long way of saying that media coverage where, in any number of cases, we’ve just gotten really, really lucky has played a serious role. I think just the DonorsChoose experience itself has helped to spur growth because when a teacher creates a project on our site and gets funded — and more than 70% of teachers are successful at least once on our site — and when they are, the arrival of books or art supplies or science equipment tends to inspire other teachers to have a little bit of hope that if they were to share their best idea for helping students learn on DonorsChoose, that it might get funded. And then, of course, when a donor gives to a project and has this experience of finding a project that matches their passion or their background, and seeing where their money goes and hearing back from the classroom in a really vivid way, hopefully that inspires them to tell other people.
NS: What does acting or leading with purpose mean to you?
CB: I think folks who work at nonprofit organizations have a little bit of an easier time seeing how purpose is integral to their work and what they do during the daylight hours. And at DonorsChoose, I think we work hard to ensure that purpose that does infuse our work, and that purpose being to bring America a little bit closer to a place where students in every community have the materials and experiences they need to learn. We try and infuse purpose into our work without ever feeling overly virtuous. Humility is one of our core values. And if we’re going to pair humility with another attribute, it’d probably be hustle — because we think that hustle and humility are the two things that will enable you to create an organization that’s built to last, and one that continues to grow. The best situation is one where you feel like you don’t ever have to be thoughtful about purpose because it feels given, or it feels that have already evident in the work.
NS: What or who inspires you to keep committing to acting with purpose? How do you stay mission driven?
CB: One person who inspired me way back when and who I think of frequently is my high school English teacher and wrestling coach, Mr. Buxton. He really inspired me, and I figured if anybody ever looked up to me the way that I looked up to Mr. Buxton, I’d have done my share in life. And so it was thanks to Mr Buxton that I knew from sophomore year of high school that I wanted to be a teacher when I graduated. And it was only by virtue of being a teacher that I started DonorsChoose because DonorsChoose is of the breed of startup that comes from someone having an itch, and figuring out a way to scratch it  — and it turning out that a lot more people have that same itch.

At a time of extreme tension and uncertainty, people are losing confidence in traditional institutions’ ability to solve bigger problems facing our communities and environment. To fill the vid, leaders and organizations are expected to make a commitment to a purpose that benefits all stakeholders.
NationSwell’s Summit West will bring together a diverse group of impactful leaders and organizations. Together, we will learn from the people practicing purpose every day.
Charles Best is a member of the NationSwell Council. To find out more about the NationSwell Council, visit our digital hub. And to learn more about Summit West 2020, visit our event splash page

Making Sure the Next Generation of Learners Is Employable

In a fast-changing world, education is a key to success. Whether learning is the path to advance a career, or to a job that can support a family, or simply to pursue a passion for discovery, it’s always a path to opportunity.

With a suite of world-class tools, content and products, Pearson believes we can positively change the outcomes for students to ensure that they are not just educated, but also employable

Watch the video above to see how Pearson is changing the face of modern education — and the modern workforce.
Learn more here.

A Bus Full of Microscopes Is Bringing Science to Underserved Schools

On a humid, overcast Tuesday afternoon, a bus pulled up to P.S. 230 in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The BioBus — which is actually a sleek silver science lab on wheels — had already hosted several classes that morning, all in the name of getting students excited about science. On a typical weekday, BioBus hosts six 45-minute classes for up to 30 children. That day at P.S. 230, they were scheduled to teach 23 students.
Community scientists Mollie Thurman and Rosemary Puckett, instructors on the BioBus team, moseyed their way around the bus as the kids examined daphnia, a water flea too small to be visible to the naked eye, through their collection of microscopes. Thurman and Puckett broke down the different parts of the tiny organism during the class. “I love being able to share the clarity of understanding [with the students]. It’s very exciting,” Puckett said.
The microscope is not just a tool to the BioBus team: It’s central to what they do. “[Microscopes teach] that inherent lesson that how you look with your eyes is not all the ways you can see,” Puckett added. And she meant this quite literally: Some of the kids got to see what their own eyes looked like under a microscope, by peering through a microscope on a rolling camera attached to a monitor.
According to the BioBus staff, more than 250,000 K-12 students have boarded their bus since it was founded in 2008, and have experienced hands-on learning with the kind of microscopes you’d normally find in a high-caliber lab. Part of its appeal is helping students understand what science is, outside of the dry material you’d normally find in a textbook. “It’s so engaging,” Thurman said. “Kids sometimes say it’s not like their regular classes.”

A community scientist teaches a group of Brooklyn students about invertebrates.

BioBus’s goal is to make science interesting and accessible to students at an early age, with a focus on students in low-income and underserved communities. According to a 2018 study by The Pew Research Center, only 9 percent of African-Americans and 7 percent of Hispanic workers have careers in STEM fields. While the study also found that 45 percent of STEM workers surveyed felt that this was because those groups weren’t encouraged at an early age to pursue that career path, they also attribute these rates to a lack of educational opportunities.  
Puckett says their mobile lab exists to bridge that gap, bringing hands-on science education to communities that otherwise would not have access to it. After each class, the instructors provide surveys to each school, which teachers are invited to complete anonymously. The consensus: Most schools have found that BioBus is a great opportunity for students to interact with real scientists and have the “wow” experience of using research-grade technology that many schools can’t afford.
While BioBus currently works with underserved schools in New York City, the problem isn’t unique to schools in that area: According to a 2016 report from the nonprofit EdBuild, school districts nationwide serving students of color received a shocking $23 billion less than mostly white school districts with the same number of students.
For now, the BioBus model seems to be working: According to Tessa Hirschfeld-Stoler, one of BioBus’s community scientists, members of their high school internship program have been accepted and enrolled in top research universities such as NYU, Harvard, Cornell and Columbia to pursue careers in science.
If other cities are able to follow their lead, BioBus could potentially set a national model for mobile education by offering students the opportunity for lessons beyond what’s offered in their school’s curricula. To Puckett, the desire to learn isn’t dependent on your geography: “The same thirst for these kind of activities are everywhere,” she said. “It gives us a reason to want to grow.”
More: Science Education Isn’t Working. Heres What Will.

For Prisoners, Reading Is So Much More Than a Pastime — It’s a Way to Change Their Lives

Twice a week, volunteers climb down the steep steps to the basement of Brooklyn’s Freebird Books. Once inside, they’re greeted by hundreds of books, stacks of brown paper bags and piles of letters. Before long, each book will be in the hands of an inmate somewhere in the U.S.
The cramped bookstore basement serves as the headquarters of NYC Books Through Bars, a volunteer-run group that sends books to incarcerated people in 40 states (the remaining states are either covered by similar programs or barred from receiving packages). In any given week the organization, which has been around for 21 years, receives hundreds of book requests: a Scrabble dictionary, a beginner’s guide to playing the guitar, a science-fiction novel — the list goes on. Each year, they ship somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 volumes to federal and state prisons.
The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other developed country, with 10.6 million cycling in and out of the criminal justice system each year. Often, these prisons have libraries that are understocked and outdated. Others might not have a library at all, or at least not one that’s accessible to all inmates. New York’s infamous Rikers Island, for example, runs its library from a single cart. With roughly 8,000 inmates spread out among the complex’s 10 jails, getting your hands on even one book can feel like finding a treasure.
NYC Books Through Bars believes education is a fundamental right. It’s also one of the strongest tools to reduce recidivism — a 2013 study by the Rand Corporation found that educational intervention can lower a formerly incarcerated person’s chances of reoffending by about 40 percent.

A volunteer handles the mail. Besides fielding book requests, the organization also receives thank-you notes and hand-drawn cards.

But over the past decade prisons have cut back on educational programs, and inmates have been excluded from receiving Pell Grants, the financial-aid program for low-income college students, since the 1990s — all of which makes accessing educational support behind bars a challenge.
“In some instances, receiving a book is the beginning of an education,” says Daniel Schaffer, a collective member who’s been volunteering with NYC Books Through Bars for more than 16 years.
Instead of shipping donated books to a central prison library, the organization mails the titles directly to the inmates who request them, a novelty among programs offering similar services.
“Sending the books to the individuals adds to the strength of the project,” says Schaffer, adding that because some prisoners might not have families that visit, write or mail packages, NYC Books Through Bars might be the only contact they have with the outside world.
Schaffer stresses that a mailed book doesn’t reach just one person — inside a prison’s walls, books are passed around and shared.  
Prisoners learn about the organization largely through word of mouth. And when one person hears about the books program, it’s just a matter of time before letters start arriving, Schaffer says. Sometimes they ask that a specific title be sent; other people are happy to receive anything from a particular genre. Among the most requested are dictionaries.
Because the books and packing materials are donated by the community, and Freebird lets the organization use its basement space for free, the program costs very little to operate. There are no paid employees, either. The only expense is postage, which is collected mostly through fundraising events. Even then, the organization cuts down on shipping costs by bundling four books in a package, at a rate of between $2.75 and $4.31 to ship.
Every Sunday and Monday, 10 to 20 volunteers collect, wrap and ship off the books. By the end of a three-hour shift, hundreds of brown parcels are stacked, ready to make their way to correctional facilities across the country.
Volunteers come from a range of backgrounds — students, librarians, archivists and editors among them — and not all hold the same beliefs about the current state of the criminal justice system. Some consider themselves abolitionists, while others promote reform. Still, everyone shows up for the same reason: to have an immediate effect on people on the inside.
“The thing that links everyone together, ultimately, is that we think the people who are in prison at least deserve to be treated as [humans],” Schaffer says.
“If, in an evening, I can do 20 or 30 or 40 books then that’s the number of individuals who are directly impacted,” he adds.
As requests for titles flood in to NYC Books Through Bars, so do the thank-yous. Letters, pop-up cards, drawings and other artwork from inmates line the shelves of the Freebird Books basement and get posted on Facebook. For the volunteers, the handmade tokens are a friendly reminder of the work they do.
Says Schaffer, “It helps to keep in mind that what you’re doing actually does impact people.”

A New Funding Model Might Change The Game For Public School Teachers And Students Nationwide

As deputy superintendent of Shelby County Schools in Memphis, Tenn., Lin Johnson has a bird’s-eye view of each school’s student population and funding. “When you start to think about the level of poverty within Memphis, it’s pretty deep,” Johnson says: Of the 104,000 students currently enrolled in the county, close to 40 percent live in poverty. And, Johnson adds, despite the funding and staff dedicated to the county’s schools each year, there is no guarantee those resources are actually helping the students who need it most.
Johnson credits a model called weighted-student funding — also known as student-weighted allocation — for improving the way Shelby schools now operate. “When I first arrived here, [I spoke with] a number of principals, and the one thing I heard that echoed was, ‘We need to address inequity within our districts,’” Johnson says. “How are we aligning resources to make sure we are meeting the needs of students, [while] giving principals flexibility and autonomy to address those needs?”
In a traditional funding model, each school receives a set allocation of staff and resources, depending on the size of the school — for example, a school might receive one teacher per 20 students, regardless of the students’ needs. With weighted-student funding (WSF), each school receives a budget based on the number of students at their school, while taking into account student needs. Proponents of this funding model praise it as a way to ensure students who need additional funding for a specific reason (i.e., English language learners or those with low proficiency scores on standardized tests, for example) receive those funds, while helping principals feel like they have more control of the planning process.
Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a national education nonprofit, worked with Shelby County Schools to set up ­their new funding model. “The goal is to ensure schools use the resources they have to ensure all kids have an opportunity to be successful — and this includes strategies on how to use time, assigning teachers in ways that leverage their expertise and giving new teachers support from mentors,” says David Rosenberg, a partner at ERS. “You’re also able to allocate dollars more equitably. As far as transparency, it’s very clear why you get what you get. It’s about student need, and not every student gets the same thing.”
While some school districts opt to partner with nonprofits like ERS to help implement WSF for a fee, other school districts, such as those in New York and Chicago, have decided to go it alone. Regardless of the approach, “it’s giving more autonomy to schools,” says Marguerite Roza, senior research affiliate at the Center on Reinventing Public Education and director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown, a research center dedicated to exploring and modeling complex educational policies and practice. “There’s some research that shows that when you’re looking at school productivity, there’s a cocktail of conditions that yield a higher return on your dollar.”
How high of a return remains to be seen. While WSF has been implemented in the school systems of at least 16 major urban areas as of 2018, how it actually helps students is still being determined. In 2016, the Edunomics Lab received a three-year grant from the federal government to study 19 districts where WSF has been implemented, including Shelby County as well as other cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco and Denver. In April of this year, the lab will host a meeting between researchers and other interested parties to discuss WSF’s impact on standardized test scores, while identifying areas of the funding formula that require more research. “The number one reason districts do this is for equity,” Roza says. “Right now in a lot of districts, they are doling out principals and AP programs and may end up with one school that spends a lot more than another, and that’s not particularly equitable.”
But districts don’t necessarily need to implement WSF in order to train their principals to be more strategic stewards of their resources. For example, schools in Tulsa, Okla., are chronically underfunded. Tulsa Public Schools does not use WSF, but is implementing something called Empower, a pilot program to help school leaders reorganize people and money to create more collaborative planning time for teachers. With Empower, Angie Teas, principal at Tulsa’s Mark Twain Elementary, was able to provide teachers with 90 additional minutes each week for collaborative planning between classes, something Johnson and Teas both deem “essential.” “Instead of it being a compliance-based process that schools complete over the summer,” says Eddie Branchaud, principal associate at ERS, “[Tulsa is] building a process in which schools look at student and teacher needs, identify priorities and engage their teams — all on an earlier timeline that allows them to hire the talent they need and prep their staff to implement [any necessary] changes.”
Though it will be a few years before there’s enough data to show if WSF works or not, the key to its popularity might lie in the fact that students seem to be in favor of it. Clark County, in Nevada, isn’t currently using a WSF model, but they’re moving in that direction, thanks to local high-school students who were invited to provide feedback on the current budgeting process. “The conclusion was that [the school] should make that decision, not the district,” says Roza. According to a town hall held last month, Clark County district leaders are expecting to implement their changes by 2024.
But even though students seem to support WSF, Roza also points out that it might not be right for every district. An individual school’s capacity to deal with change is an important thing to consider. “If I’m in a district and I don’t have really great principal management skills, [such a] model might be a bad idea, given that I don’t have the conditions in place to benefit from it,” Roza says.
Similarly, there’s no easy way to identify that there’s a direct correlation between weighted-student funding and improvement in grades. “It doesn’t seem practical to say ‘If my kid’s in third grade and my district just adopted a weighted-student formula, that’s the reason their reading scores went up,’” Roza says. “I think what we are realizing is that we thought we could run large urban districts as factories: We could line up the pieces and parts in the same way, and get the same results.”
While WSF often helps school districts with more than 20,000 students, it doesn’t do much for smaller districts, such as those with fewer than 5,000 students enrolled. “If you have a small enough pot of money where you know what’s going on with each school, I wouldn’t bother with it,” Roza says. And because smaller schools automatically receive less money due to a smaller student body, the formula can actually backfire: In Boston, for example, implementing weighted student funding led to a Hunger Games scenario, where one school gained faculty while another lost beloved teachers.
Regardless of outcome on a student-by-student basis, Roza says that giving schools control over their own finances is a significant improvement. “Much of what schooling does involves human interactions, human process and relationships,” Roza says. “By giving principals the ability to decide how to spend [their money], you’ve made a step towards equity.”

More: Fixing America’s Schools

Samsung NEXT Innovation Challenge

It can be hard enough to start a business — but what if you also want that business to create positive change in the world? Samsung NEXT and NationSwell teamed up for the Samsung NEXT Innovation Challenge, to reward innovators focused on bridging the opportunity gap across education, workforce development, and economic empowerment.
The five finalists were comprised of a diverse group of entrepreneurs from all parts of the country, each building businesses geared toward achieving positive social impact. All five presented their innovations at an awards ceremony in New York City, where one company, Literator, was announced the winner.

Here’s a look at the issues these five young innovators chose to tackle, and how they hope to make a difference.

The winner, Michelle Ching, set out to solve a major problem in education: literacy. As a second-grade teacher, she saw that her students were struggling with learning to read — but it was hard to track their progress and identify where they were getting stuck. Her app, Literator, helps teachers track their students’ reading proficiency in real time across the school year, and lets them know what kind of help each student needs. “Literacy is one of the things that is the biggest blocker for student success, so for us, it was a no-brainer that literacy would be the big systems-change work that we wanted to tackle first,” says Ching. “But it’s turned into a bigger vision beyond that.”

Brian Hill, CEO and founder of Edovo, wants to create a new model of education in correctional facilities while also helping incarcerated people stay in touch with their loved ones. By providing incarcerated people with secure tablets, Edovo helps them gain access to education and also communicate with loved ones on the outside. These tools can provide the skills and support that allow people to integrate back into the community when they’re released, and that in turn can reduce recidivism, says Hill. “If we’re not helping people, if we’re just opening the door and saying ‘Go home,’ we run the risk of very rapidly destroying any gains we make in [criminal justice reform],” Hill says. “It’s about helping people learn and develop and make choices.”

Fonta Gilliam founded Sou Sou as a way to modernize the informal credit clubs adopted by many cultures around the world. In Ghana, a sou-sou is a practice in which a group pools their money, allowing one member to use the full amount each month. Gilliam said she became aware of this and similar practices while working as a diplomat in the foreign service across Africa and Asia. Gilliam built an app that allows people to easily track and organize their pooled funds, while also linking up with banks to earn credit on the money. “There are so many communities abroad, even immigrant communities in the U.S., that are using these informal lending circles to save money amongst themselves, rotate money and fund their goals,” says Gilliam. “So I thought to myself, this is a system that’s working, what if we modernized it with tech?”
Preston Silverman said he realized that many high school students “check out” of the college track early because they assume they will not be able to afford to go — even if they might be eligible for scholarships after graduating from high school. His startup, RaiseMe, helps high school students access financial aid before they apply to college. “We focus on the financial aid part of the equation because we see that’s the biggest barrier for students and families, but ultimately we want to help all students discover and realize their college ambitions,” says Silverman. With RaiseMe, students can “follow” colleges they’re interested in and earn “micro-scholarships” from those colleges for a variety of achievements throughout high school, such as getting good grades, participating in extracurricular activities and playing sports. If they end up matriculating, they can collect the scholarship.
Like Michelle Ching, Heejae Lim wants to use technology to improve education — but while Literator is a tool for teachers, Lim’s company TalkingPoints is intended to help immigrant parents better support their children in school. As a Korean immigrant, Lim noticed that students whose parents spoke English communicated easily with teachers and became involved in the education process, while those whose parents didn’t speak English struggled to be involved. Her app allows teachers to message parents directly and automatically translates messages in English into over 20 languages. When parents reply in their home language, their response is translated into English for the teacher. “Most of the resources right now are going to school environments and teachers, which is also really important,” Lim says. “But we can also unlock the power of parents and families to be able to improve student performance.”

Article produced in partnership with Samsung NEXT, Samsung’s innovation group that works with entrepreneurs to build, grow, and scale great ideas. NationSwell has partnered with Samsung NEXT to find and elevate some of the most promising innovators working to close the opportunity gap in America. Click here to meet the finalists.

How Augmented and Virtual Realities Can Take Students Beyond the Classroom

In the not-so-distant future, a field trip might mean donning an augmented reality device to allow a student to overlay digital elements on their real-world environment, to better understand other places in space and time. That device might also let a grade schooler look at a glass of water and see a screen overlay with a detailed description of H2O molecules, as well as pictures and descriptions of the microorganisms living in it. Or it could help a medical student understand the symptoms, feelings and medical background of a patient.
Augmented reality, or AR, creates a composite image of the real world by superimposing a computer-generated image over it. The promise of this tech is to “augment” real-world information, to help students better connect with and learn about the world. In the classroom, for example, this could involve a student wearing a headset that projects a secondary layer of information on a real or virtual space such as the above-mentioned glass of water.
Such ideas were part of the conversation at Samsung NEXT’s Jeffersonian-style salon in San Francisco, which focused on the possibilities and challenges of augmented reality in the future of education. A diverse group of technologists, entrepreneurs, journalists, educators, and investors gathered to discuss key issues that need to be addressed in order for augmented reality to have a positive and lasting impact in the classroom of the future.

The Key Question

While textbooks can help students understand other people’s experiences, augmented reality can give those experiences real-time context. “The big question is, how can augmented reality spark interest and engagement to give students a better experience than a textbook?” asks Jennifer Carolan, a former teacher and founder of Reach Capital.
And, of course, anything that might upend one’s perception of the world needs to be implemented with care. The group agreed that there are a lot of ethical considerations to consider, and that kids need to understand the difference between real and not real.

More Empathy and Engagement

As children become more glued to their screens for work, play and their social lives, research suggests that college students have become 40% less empathetic than they were ten years ago. At the same time, only 50% of students report that they are engaged in the classroom.
But if augmented reality education tools are built in conjunction with leading-edge thinkers in education who are planning the curricula of the future, students could start to feel more engagement and empathy by gaining further insights into subjects and develop stronger connections with diverse groups of people outside their own communities.

The Benefits of the AR Classroom

With the right applications, AR might offer many benefits. In some communities, particularly those that are lower-income, teachers often don’t have a lot of resources to take kids far outside the classroom, and likewise, families don’t have the financial resources to travel and experience other communities and lifestyles. AR could bring students into communities around the world that they might not otherwise get to visit,” Carolan says. Real-time experiences, such as visiting a museum and seeing an exhibit about the Roman Colosseum, might be overlaid with a 3D gladiator duel. Such a dynamic, real-time experience could be overlaid with facts and statistics about the historical era, so that the student is absorbing the same information they would from a textbook, while at the same time feeling immersed in the time and place about which they are learning.
Jason Palmer, a general partner at New Market Venture Partners, suggests that AR could help students who learn in a different way. For example, one application of AR could be that a deaf student could wear a watch in a seminar that might vibrate to alert them when another student is speaking. Such applications could create more connection between students.
But for these experiences to happen in a thoughtful way, technologists and educators need to work hand-in-hand. “If you want AR to be a strong learning tool, you need the pedagogy and curriculum to drive that combined with the technology experts who help make the ideas happen,” says Sergio Rosas, a program lead at the Kapor Center. “A VR headset is not going to fix the problem if kids are left behind.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly presented AR as an immersive digital experience. AR usually refers to the addition of virtual assets to a real-world experience, so that virtual and real seem to merge. VR is a more accurate description for the creation of virtual worlds.

Article produced in partnership with Samsung NEXT, Samsung’s innovation group that works with entrepreneurs to build, grow, and scale great ideas. NationSwell has partnered with Samsung NEXT to find and elevate some of the most promising innovators working to close the opportunity gap in America. Click here to meet the finalists.

Why Green Classrooms Could Be the Schools of the Future

When Golestan Education took over the old St. Jerome’s Catholic school in El Cerrito, Calif., it looked much like your average suburban parochial school: a nondescript squat building sporting a cross on one side, abutting 18,000 square feet of concrete. There was not a single tree anywhere on the property.
But that was before Golestan co-founder and executive director Yalda Modabbar unveiled her ambitious plans for the space. Now there are four brand-new sunlight-filled classrooms with massive sliding glass walls that open up to what once was an asphalt-slathered playground, an expanse of green with lots of trees, boulders and bales of hay for kids to play on. Between the classrooms and the playground are two tiers of planters – one at kids’ height filled with plants for them to work and play with, the other with flowers to attract hummingbirds. Connecting the greenery outside with the indoor learning space is exactly the point of it all, says Modabber. “When you’re inside, you feel like you’re outside, even on a rainy day.”
Golestan is one of a growing number of schools across the country that are ditching the old 1940s-era asphalt-slathered playground model in favor of trees, flowers and gardens. And the benefits are more than just aesthetic: A growing body of research indicates that having access to green space at school has a direct impact on mental health as well as academic success.
William Sullivan, professor and head of the landscape program at the University of Illinois, has spent much of his career studying the impact of green spaces on human beings. One recent project involved giving high school kids “mentally fatiguing” tests in one of three environments: a room with no windows, a room with windows but no vegetation, and a room with a view of vegetation. In the room with no windows, the students reported the highest stress and made the most errors on the tests, while kids in the room with the view of trees reported the lowest stress and made the fewest errors.

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The combined indoor/outdoor learning space at Golestan brings the outside world indoors, creating an environment that is conducive to learning and improved test scores.

Sullivan is currently working on research that shows that exposure to green space is predictive of graduation rates, standardized test scores and even college attendance. “Having green exposure on school grounds is not a trivial thing in the slightest,” says Sullivan. “The success that a person has in high school puts them on a life course that’s hard to change from.”
The catch: Golestan is a nonprofit where students pay tuition to attend. How can their model work at a public school, where the student body is largely dependent on financial aid?
Hoover Elementary in West Oakland – just a few miles south but a million miles from Golestan, socio-economically speaking – is attempting to find out. It might be a cash-strapped inner-city school where most students qualify for free lunch, but it has devoted over 5,600 square feet of its property to growing fruit, vegetables, herbs, bushes and fruit trees, enough so that they will start supplying the West Oakland farmers market with fresh produce. The local homeless population are free to take whatever is ripe when they walk by.
“We’ve seen a lot of benefits, not just with healthy eating but also with a connection to nature, says Hoover Principal Ashley Martin. “Being in a trauma-saturated community, the garden really offers a space for kids to help them kind of calm down and regulate.”
All of this side-steps another critical feature of green schoolyards: their positive environmental impact. When rain hits concrete, it bounces off and can easily overwhelm sewer systems, leading to runoff that can cause flooding and erosion. Stormwater runoff also picks up and carries with it many different types of pollutants that are found on paved surfaces – fertilizer, motor oil, bacteria and so on. Green schoolyards absorb the rain, mitigating these effects while nourishing local plants and trees, something that could make a big difference in cities that regularly experience flooding exacerbated by climate change.
“I like to see schoolgrounds as a microcosm of the city [we] would like to see,” says Sharon Danks, founder and executive director of Green Schoolyards America, a Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit that seeks to grow the green schoolyard movement. To her, schoolyards across America represent a vast resource that few communities have begun to tap: Despite its ubiquity, the exact amount of land public schools occupy is unknown, even to city planners. “Cities are essentially planning with gaping holes in their maps where all the schools are,” Danks says. In other words: If that land were developed in a responsible and sustainable way, we might be able to slow the devastating effects of climate change.
None of this is cheap, of course, but tapping existing climate funds, urban-greening grant programs, and even cap-and-trade money could help pay for greening concrete-slathered jungles. “We need to think about this as park planning and apply infrastructure-scale budgets that we would normally apply to a park or a stormwater project,” Danks says.
But how about in dense urban areas, like in New York City, where the schools often don’t have campuses to work with? Most New York City schools have expansive rooftops that are underutilized, says Vicki Sando, who teaches STEM classes at P.S.41 in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Sando was the project and fundraising lead for P.S.41’s green roof, one of the first green school roofs in the city, completed in 2012. “Not all schools are ideal candidates, but the ones that are see multiple benefits,” Sando says. “Our energy usage has gone down about 22 percent with the green roof on there, and the kids are so enthusiastic about going up there and reconnecting with nature in an urban environment.”
Modabber echoes Sando’s enthusiasm. “The younger the child, the more space they need,” she says. “These kids are growing up with a deep love of nature, and they are going to want to preserve it.”
MORE: Ask the Experts: How Can We Fix Early Childhood Education?

Want to Change the World? Here’s Your Social Impact Cheatsheet

The role of business in the world has changed radically over the past couple of decades. No longer can companies conduct business as they did a generation ago, with an eye to the bottom line and not much else: Nearly two-thirds of Americans now believe that companies should take the lead in driving social and environmental change.
Much of the move toward social responsibility is being driven by millennials, who are by and large digital natives steeped in social media and have proven especially adept at promoting causes online. And as the sentiments of millennials continue to influence business affairs — a recent Deloitte report found, for example, that millennial workers seek out employers that share the same social values — it makes sense that social impact has been codified by academia as well.
“A decade ago, only a handful of schools invested in [social impact]; today, almost 50 percent of the top 50 business schools in the world host a social impact program, initiative, or center,” reads a Bridgespan group report on universities that offer opportunities within the social-impact sector.
Lynn Wooten, senior associate dean at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, agrees. “[Today’s 18-21 year olds] have a depleted tolerance for the business models of old,” she writes in the Financial Times. “They do not merely expect but instead demand that the businesses they frequent as consumers, and will someday lead as professionals, are focused on affecting the greater good of their communities and the world.”
So if you’re looking for a career in the world of social impact — but don’t know exactly where to begin — here are three schools that offer social impact opportunities within the areas of art and design, journalism and entrepreneurship.  

School of Visual Arts, New York City

Master of Fine Arts in Design for Social Innovation
This two-year program revolves around the design of products and services that aim for impact within the social, environmental and government sectors. The program partners graduate students with multinational organizations to help solve social issues.

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The SVA Master of Fine Arts in Design for Social Innovation pairs graduate students with multinational organizations to help solve social issues.

Newmark School of Journalism at City University of New York

Master of Arts in Social Journalism
An intensive nine-month program spins journalism on its head, with a focus on how to measure impact and how to report on impact in a thoughtful manner. Students partner with leading news organizations like ProPublica and the Guardian to build out a project or an internship that reports on specific communities around the globe.
*Disclaimer: This writer graduated from the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

University of Southern California Marshall School of Business

Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship
With the option of completing your degree full-time in one year, or part-time over several years, the L.A.-based business school offers a program focusing on impact investing, environmental sustainability and global social impact. Students in their capstone develop detailed business plans with an existing organization, or get to develop a new social-impact opportunity with a new organization.