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Aurora Institute

Innovation Spotlight – The Skill, Will, and Resources that Create the Conditions for Young People to Thrive

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Courtney Belolan, Matthew Shea

Issues: Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Commit to Equity, Design for Educational Equity


Each year at our annual Symposium, Matthew Shea and Courtney Belolan manage the Voices Hub. It’s a recording space set in the Innovation Corner where attendees can drop by and share their thoughts, lessons learned, and process the ideas they’re getting through the conference. Over the next several weeks, we’ll share some of the most thought-provoking and engaging conversations. In this interview, education researcher Dr. Camille Farrington and Raikes Foundation program manager Gisele Shorter describe initiatives that are supporting equitable learning environments and the conditions that foster them. Listen in.


Matt: Today’s guests are Camille Farrington and Gisele Shorter. Welcome.

Gisele: Thank you.

Camille: Thanks for having us.

Courtney: We are so excited to talk with you here at the Aurora Institute. So, would you share for our listeners a little bit about who you are and what you do, and what brings you to the Aurora Institute this here?

Gisele: I’ve been with the Raikes Foundation for about a year and a half. I lead the K-12 school and system redesign portfolio of giving. The reason I’m here is we invest in and partner with leading researchers, practitioners, educators, intermediaries, but primarily districts increasingly, to advance a new set of goals that are rooted in what we know from the science of learning and development about what’s required for all young people to thrive and the skill, will, and resources that adults need to bring to bear in order to create the conditions for young people to thrive. And so sharing that message and supporting others to increasingly think about what that means for their work and how they support schools and districts around the country.

Camille: And as part of that, I was part of the Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Network. We had a presentation earlier today. The network’s been going on for three years, and so we shared some of the tools and learnings and things that we’ve developed over the course of the last three years.

Courtney: What have been some of the successes in the projects or in your network?

Camille: So one thing that I am excited about is that, I think [in] most networks really, folks are in it for themselves to a certain extent. So organizations are participating in a network to improve their own services [that] they deliver or expand their own capacities. And certainly, we did do that and support that with the 10 intermediary organizations that were in the BELE network. But kind of halfway through, we pivoted to [ask] what can we collectively do for the field more broadly? And so for the last year and a half or so, what we call the SSOs (the school support organizations) worked together to really produce. Like if we wanted to produce resources and materials around adult learning, for example, [we ask] what do each of our organizations have that we could contribute and then what could we collectively co-create to put out there? All of those are being captured in what we call the BELE Library, which is an online thing called EquitableLearning.org and just available for the world.

Matt: You described some of those conditions for young learners. Can you describe what a few of those might be for our listeners?

Gisele: Sure. Excited to be sitting here with the leading expert on this. Pulling from Camille and her team’s research, her white paper on Foundations for Young Adult Success, we know well the value of not only the learning environment and conditions, but the conditions that support young people to develop an integrated identity and be grounded in a sense of purpose and connection to school and learning as a key driver for not only academic success, but success along the life course. So that’s really exciting. When we think about belonging, cues of belonging, the ways in which adults and the system message and language to young people that they belong, set the context for them to be wholly present and thrive, to be seen, to feel valued, and to be connected. So those are two examples.

Camille: We also are in the process of putting together, and it should be up there shortly, like within a month, say, something called Starting Your School’s Equity Journey. It could be for a school district that wants to [know] how do we even do this. We use the metaphor of a library book. In the book is detailed instruction and suggested activities that adults can do in a team or individually. Things like shadow a student to really understand what their day is like, and to particularly shadow a student that you recognize is one of the folks that you least-well serve in your school system to really understand what their experience is in the day. So there’s a whole bunch of individual activities that individual adults or teams of adults can do to really interrogate their system around equity and then the moves you can make to advance your work and really engage in inquiry around equity in your system.

Courtney: What have been some of the tools and the processes that you’ve shared in this network? What’s the feedback you’ve gotten from schools or teachers that have used them? And are there trends in the kinds of activities that you’re seeing that people tend to go to first? What’s the success been like?

Gisele: I think it depends on where people are situated within the system. We often think about success as the micro-interactions, right? What’s happening in the classroom? How do we map a set of experiences that young people are having to their assessment scores, interim or otherwise? What I think we have found is that it is the constellation. It’s the experience of school for young people that’s rooted in the science of learning and development, the skill, will, and tools and the resources that the adults are bringing to bear to set that condition. But it’s also the broader school and the district’s set of constructs wrapped around it and the policies that are enabling. And so, when we talk about success, I think success comes in many forms. Hearing districts like Chicago say, “Wow, this is the most comprehensive articulation of what constitutes an equitable learning environment.” What are the enabling conditions and then the pathways that are accessible, depending on where you are in the system? And how might they think about getting about the process of transforming to be more equitable. That feels like a major win. To be able to present to folks an integrated way of thinking about or a systems lens and what are some of the levers to shift not only the experience of school but reliably produce outcomes. I think the types of tools and resources that Camille mentioned are catalogued on our BELE library, again, equitablelearning.org. They are digestible tools and resources that have proven successful at shifting the experience and reliably producing outcomes, some in another context. So, it acts as starter dough, but isn’t a checkbox or prescriptive for educators, system leaders, or Ed policymakers. It’s actually something to contemplate and to pick up and user-test your own context.

Matt: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the work that you’re doing? Where schools and districts — I know we’re going to send them to equitablelearning.org and that BELE library sounds outstanding. And since it’s free, it said something that’s going to be continuing to be added to?

Camille: Absolutely. We just finished three years with this cohort of 10 school support organizations, but then we’ll launch another cohort of districts coming up. And right now, we’re just using this year to really kind of consolidate our learning and all of the backlog of things that we need to put on the library.

Gisele: And provide support to the first wave of districts because there’s a remarkable difference between what intermediaries or school support organizations perceive as the solution. Many of them are addressing a particular aspect. What we know from the district side of the house, what’s required to actually see transformation? So how do you build the will and the demand within your community for this type of transformation? We are investing in the National Equity Project’s Midwest District Network, and so seven districts there, and then CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative as a gateway.

We work nationally. So the CASEL set of districts are national. When we launch approximately a year to 18 months out with Building Equitable Learning Environment’s Improvement Networks for Equity set of district investments, they will be national.

Matt: Okay. Excellent. So really, anyone can start working on this?

Camille: Yes.

Matt: Excellent. Well, thank you very much for your time today. This was very informative.

Camille: Thank you for having us.

Courtney: Thank you. We look forward to seeing how this all grows and spreads. It sounds extremely valuable. Thank you.

Gisele: It’s exciting.

Camille: Thank you.


Matthew Shea and Courtney Belolan are educators who run the Personalized Learning with Matt and Courtney podcast and manage the Aurora Institute Symposium Voices Hub. Dr. Camille Farrinton is a senior research associate and managing director at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Gisele C. Shorter is an education program manager at the Raikes Foundation.