David, a student at Van Ness Elementary School (a district PK3-5th grade school in Washington, D.C.), is brilliant. He’s curious about the world around him, and always seeking new opportunities to learn. No matter the situation, he is a teambuilder, peacekeeper, entrepreneur and thought leader. Nonetheless, on all formal measures of achievement, he is ‘below level’ in reading and math and – at most schools – would be at risk for having to repeat 3rd grade.

But what if a school figured out how to leverage David’s strengths, tapping into his non-academic skills and providing him with diverse and meaningful learning opportunities, while also addressing his academic needs? This dual focus on academic achievement and the development of the whole child is the goal of educators at Van Ness, who have partnered with Transcend, Inc. since 2016 to build and spread a powerful new school model rooted in social-emotional learning (SEL).

Transcend supports visionary leaders like Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, Van Ness’s principal, and vibrant school communities with research and development (R&D) capacity that helps them innovate, pilot and spread breakthrough school models. Since its launch in July 2015 by Jeff Wetzler and Aylon Samouha, Transcend’s work has been built on five key pillars: 

  • It is time to reimagine school as we know it.
  • Communities must be in the driver’s seat.
  • Targeted supports can help design teams advance progress.
  • Access to models that others have developed gives communities more options.
  • Innovation can either perpetuate or disrupt inequity – Transcend believes the latter.

Guided by these core beliefs, Transcend is working to build equitable learning environments that prioritize personalized learning, meaningful teacher and student experiences, cultural responsivity and parent engagement, among other factors, in two ways. First, by supporting communities’ efforts to redesign their school systems and connecting them with innovative models and structured processes for implementing them. And second, by partnering directly with schools to build and spread “catalytic models” that offer communities a diverse range of relevant, high-quality school design options they can adopt and adapt to meet the unique needs of their student population.

Transcend doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to school redesign, which is why they’re creating a menu of approaches that all kinds of schools and communities can adapt to fit their needs. “We touch every kind of community: charter, urban, rural, district, magnet schools,” said Jeff Wetzler, Co-Founder of Transcend. “We are pushing boundaries across pre-k-12, across the country, both in school and out of school.”

For the past three years, Transcend has partnered with Valor Collegiate Academies, a network of public charter middle schools in Nashville, Tennessee, whose students rank in the top 2% in the state in growth and achievement. Valor uses SEL as a foundation for its school community. The network pioneered a model called “Compass,” which is meant to guide every member of the school, including staff members, through their own adaptive developmental process. Early in the partnership, Transcend’s support helped Valor to run a pilot to better understand exactly how and to what extent “Compass” was benefitting kids, helping Valor refine its model.

“The level of intimacy and emotional intelligence that gets engaged and is developed at Valor is extraordinary,” said Wetzler. “Academics of the school are top-notch and the relationship between the two is special.” 

Today, Transcend is helping Valor to spread its “Circle” discussion and community-building protocol – in which students and teachers gather in small groups once a week for an open dialogue about their feelings, experiences, and relationships – to 50+ schools across the US.

Van Ness and Transcend’s partnership began shortly after the school opened, when Principal Robinson-Rivers and others participated in a collaborative 10-month program that helps schools develop and sharpen their innovative ideas and center the community’s strengths and aspirations through empathy work. When Van Ness teachers noticed that children were not coming into school ready to learn, they evolved their school model to help students get into a learning mindset first thing. Van Ness now begins every day with “Strong Start,” a morning routine that helps students get into an executive functioning state (which in turn allows them to focus and learn). Encouragingly, other schools in DC have taken notice; this fall, with support from the Van Ness and Transcend’s R&D team, five other district elementary schools are starting to pilot this approach and other aspects of Van Ness’s SEL model in their own classrooms.

“When we help schools create a proof of concept in their own building, it can really catch like wildfire and incentivize transformation across the field,” said Dr. Jennifer Charlot, a partner who leads research and development for Transcend. 

Even with “Strong Start,” Van Ness noticed that some students lost their focus after the morning. Transcend is now helping Van Ness conduct research and development around this model to make it even more effective.

Funding from the Raikes Foundation has helped Transcend strengthen the way they think about research and development as a whole, connecting them to others in the field who do improvement work through the Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Network and other channels. This is helping Transcend fine tune their research process with schools so they can share it with the field in the coming years.

“We believe in the importance of evidence-based research that connects research and practice,” said Charlot. “We’re constantly working to develop and refine the best tools possible to help visionaries redesign their schools and classrooms, realize their most ambitious dreams and reimagine education.”  


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Baylee’s family became homeless when she was two-years-old. She describes childhood as a time when she “mov[ed] around a lot” between hotels, shelters, friends’ apartments and family members’ homes.

When Baylee was 11, her mom committed suicide. Baylee entered foster care, where she stayed for two years until the court allowed her to move in with her dad. Once there, she became the target of ongoing conflict and arguments, and increasingly struggled with her mental health, attempting suicide multiple times. Feeling rejected, she left home.

Baylee first stayed in a hotel with a friend whose family was also homeless, but then moved to an emergency shelter for minors. However, she was turned away after her dad refused to sign the required paperwork. Baylee then began to exchange sex to pay for a hotel room. Not wanting this to continue and afraid of sleeping outside on the streets, she returned to the emergency shelter. They let her in for the night, and the following morning, the shelter convinced Baylee’s father to sign for her to stay.

Baylee is one of over 200 young people who were interviewed by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago for a series of research-to-impact briefs on understanding and addressing youth homelessness, known as the Voices of Youth Count (VOYC). VOYC is the first-ever national prevalence study of homeless youth, designed to capture the scope and experiences of the population, and develop actionable policy solutions and legislative recommendations based on that data. The results of the study were startling, revealing that approximately one in 10 young adults ages 18-25 and at least one in 30 youth ages 13-17 experiences homelessness each year. 

VOYC is illustrative of Chapin Hall’s approach, which always includes young people, like Baylee, who are “the subjects” in the research process and in testing conclusions. Said Chapin Hall Director of Communications Marrianne McMullen, “We’re not in an ivory tower or in a lab looking down at people through a microscope. We work hand-in-hand with the people affected by the social issues that we study.”  

This novel approach wasn’t always widely accepted and initially raised some eyebrows across the field. When Chapin Hall was training young people who were recently homeless to conduct research for VOYC, some in the youth homelessness space were skeptical. “But it worked beautifully,” continued McMullen. “The young people were dependable employees and gathered a lot more information than someone on the outside could have gotten. They know the population, they blend in, the kids trust them, and it leads to more effective research.”

Another hallmark of Chapin Hall’s research methods is that they’re applied in practice: “We expect our research to affect how practice is carried out and how policies are shaped at the federal, state and city level, and we want that to happen as quickly as possible,” continued McMullen.

Chapin Hall developed a host of actionable recommendations for legislators, agency administrators, nonprofits, and educators to help them address the youth homelessness crisis, based on the results of VOYC. Those recommendations include funding housing interventions, services, and prevention efforts in accordance with the full scale of youth homelessness in communities, tailoring supports for rural youth experiencing homelessness to account for more limited infrastructure, and building preventative efforts into systems where youth likely to experience homelessness are in public care: child welfare, juvenile justice, and education.

Chapin Hall emphasizes interventions in schools in particular, where students experiencing homelessness are likely to fall behind and experience a disruption in their education. Chapin Hall has developed strategies for educators and policymakers to intervene, including helping schools to identify at-risk youth before they reach a crisis, creating a single point of contact for students experiencing homelessness to better manage their care, and building partnerships to foster better record sharing so students experience minimal disruption to their education when they switch districts.

Currently, Chapin Hall is partnering with school systems and local organizations in a small number of U.S. communities – including King County– to adapt, pilot, and evaluate the “Upstream” model. Upstream is the American adaptation of the Australian Geelong Project, which led to significant reductions in the number of adolescents (ages 12-18) entering the local homelessness system and dropping out of school.

Upstream involves establishing data-driven processes to identify students at risk for homelessness or dropping out of school, and those already experiencing homelessness. The process starts with a screening survey for all students that can be supplemented with routinely collected early warning indicators like chronic absenteeism. If the school notices risks, it can then deliver a flexible case management and counseling approach, linked to a range of resources to meet the needs of the students and their families.

The youth homelessness crisis won’t be solved overnight – but Chapin Hall is helping to put us on the right track.


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America has a long-standing tradition of generosity. As a nation, we contribute nearly $400 billion each year to issues and causes. Though we often think of large foundations when we think about philanthropy, more than 70 percent of giving in this country is directed by individuals writing checks or giving online. 

Among individuals, most (85 percent) say they care about the impact of their gifts, but only 32 percent conduct research online, and only 9 percent  compare organizations. At the same time, our nation is anticipating the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in our history, and expects up to $60 trillion will be passed along to heirs and some $20 trillion will be given to nonprofits over the next 50 years. 

This generosity presents an enormous opportunity to make progress on pressing social issues and solve some of our greatest challenges, but if donors aren’t making informed, intentional investments, we will squander this chance. We see an exciting opportunity to direct more of these donations to make faster and deeper progress on issues and in communities. 

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America has a long-standing tradition of generosity. As a nation, we contribute nearly $400 billion each year to issues and causes. Though we often think of large foundations when we think about philanthropy, more than 70 percent of giving in this country is directed by individuals writing checks or giving online. 

Among individuals, most (85 percent) say they care about the impact of their gifts, but only 32 percent conduct research online, and only 9 percent  compare organizations. At the same time, our nation is anticipating the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in our history, and expects up to $60 trillion will be passed along to heirs and some $20 trillion will be given to nonprofits over the next 50 years.

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It only takes a minute talking to Deb Salls, Executive Director of Bike Works, to realize that the youth programs she runs are special.

“Leadership is built into every program,” says Salls, before launching into the incredible number of steps Bike Works takes to empower young people and encourage them to take ownership of the programs and space.

“Here we believe that every youth can succeed… When they first come in here we say ‘Oh yeah, of course you can do it. No reason you can’t do it,’” says Salls. “But some of these youth have been told for a long time that they can’t — they can’t do this, they can’t do that. They can’t really be good at anything. But coming into a new space, a new program where people truly believe in you. It’s a level playing field.”

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When Carol Dweck was working on her doctorate in social and developmental psychology at Yale University, she became intrigued with a fundamental question about education:  Why do some students give up in the face of failure, while others thrive?

“I was interested in how children coped with difficulty and setbacks,” Dweck recalled. “Some of the children as I expected folded and thought it was the end of the world. Others looked like I was giving them a gift. They said things like, ‘I love a challenge,’ ‘I was hoping this would be informative,’ or ‘mistakes are our friend.’  And I thought, where are these kids from, Mars? I’m failing them! And yet they were relishing it. And benefiting from it.

“Then and there,” Dweck said, “I swore that I would uncover their secret, bottle it and give it to the world.”

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When Dawn Clemens became principal of Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C., she held a funeral. Into a mock coffin, she dumped a batch of excuses—slips of paper conveying the many reasons people gave for why students weren’t learning. The ritual was her way of saying that, even though the percentage of students living in poverty exceeded those who graduated high school in the area, she would accept no rationalizations for the school’s failure to reach its academic goals.

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On a recent Monday morning, a young woman took a seat before the Seattle City Council, opened her PowerPoint slides, and cheerfully introduced herself to the elected officials.

“My name is Montrai Williams,” she told the council, flashing a photograph of herself in pigtails at the age of four. “I go by Trai.”

She spoke with the calm and confidence of a seasoned political veteran. Yet Trai is far from typical in the halls of government—one reason why she is such an effective advocate for preventing and ending youth homelessness in King County.

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On Tacoma’s Hilltop, a youth program strives to serve students better

As warm afternoon light brightens the common room at Jason Lee Middle School, Lily Caldera reflects on the help and support she has received from the Hilltop Scholars program with gratitude and self-awareness beyond her 13 years.

“It’s really built my self-confidence,” Lily says. Operated by Peace Community Center, Hilltop Scholars combines an intensive summer program with academic coaching during the school year to help students in Tacoma’s diverse Hilltop neighborhood progress through middle school and high school and into college. “I was really nervous coming into middle school – all the drama, meeting new friends.”

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Bridging the Gap Between Research and the Real World


It is mid-morning on a warm, spring Wednesday, and Erick Delcham is darting from student to student in his Algebra III class at North Queens Community High School. 
Delcham smiles and laughs as he pushes his students to explain how they are trying to answer the problems in front of them.

“Notice what you are doing now?” he encourages a quiet boy named Kuron, who has floated an idea about how to solve a Pythagorean equation. “You are conjecturing!”

Delcham has been teaching math in New York City for 25 years. Until recently, he – like many people – thought that in every class, there are a certain number of students who are simply not “math people” and will never master the subject.  

Erick’s views began to change when he and other math teachers at North Queens became part of the Student Agency Improvement Community (SAIC) and learned teaching methods that significantly increased his students’ engagement and proficiency.

Classroom-based Collaboration  

The Raikes Foundation provided a grant to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2014 to establish the SAIC. The goal of the grant is to bridge the gap between cutting-edge research about the science of learning and the day-to-day realities of classrooms, so that many more students succeed.  

The SAIC pairs Carnegie researchers and coaches with educators in a diverse mix of schools around the country. They work closely throughout the year to develop, test and refine techniques to help teachers – and their students – implement what researchers have discovered about the optimal ways to help students learn – the development of learning mindsets and skills – things like knowing that their intelligence grows with mental effort; that struggling with a new challenge is normal; when they can relate lessons to their own lives; and when they are shown that people like them belong in school and can be successful.

Students with learning mindsets have confidence in their ability to learn and persist when they face challenges. They see the value in the material they study and strive for growth. Learning mindsets work hand in hand with educational skills such as time management, goal setting, and knowing when to ask for help. Together, learning mindsets and skills give students the beliefs, tools and habits they need to learn more of the content they are taught, seek out new challenges and persist through them.

Today more than 30 schools from six networks participate in SAIC, which Carnegie describes as a “Networked Improvement Community.”  Carnegie applies the principles of improvement science to help SAIC participants rapidly prototype and iterate on solutions to major problems of student underperformance and to reduce inequities in educational outcomes.

Changing Mindsets to Change Outcomes

Watch: Learning Mindsets in Action

North Queens is an especially useful laboratory for testing how to develop learning mindsets and skills to reduce inequities, given the challenges facing its student population. North Queens is one of 50 transfer schools in New York City, which are a “last stop” of sorts for young people the city’s traditional public schools have struggled to serve. Students enrolled in transfer schools are a year or more behind in high school and have a history of truancy. The student body is 35 percent African-American and 35 percent Hispanic, and many are from low-income backgrounds.

“We had a subset of kids that were coming to school on a regular basis but were not making progress in their classes, and we wanted to unpack what was going on,” said Lainey Collins, director of North Queens High School, explaining why she and Winston McCarthy, the principal of North Queens, decided to join SAIC. “We knew it wasn’t an attendance issue and we didn’t really feel like it was an academic skills issue.”

Collins first became interested in learning mindsets and skills after reading about Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset – the belief that a person’s intelligence is not a fixed trait, but is malleable and can increase – and exploring academic and personal behaviors identified by the New York City Department of Education as integral to success, such as persistence and organizational skills.

Crunching the Numbers

When Collins and McCarthy joined SAIC, they had a very specific problem they wanted to solve:  Low passage rates among North Queens students on New York City’s Regents Exam in Integrated Algebra, which is a graduation requirement.

Prior to joining SAIC, Collins said, only 30 to 40 percent of North Queens students were passing the exam. After introducing interventions to help teachers develop their students’ learning mindsets and skills, the pass rate rose to 66 percent the first year.

“We were super excited but we thought, ‘Well, maybe this is a one-time thing,” said Collins. The next time the test was administered the pass rate was 72 percent, and then it ticked up to 82 percent. In addition to higher test scores, Collins said, students at the school started approaching math differently. They revised their work more and talked with their teachers more about the feedback they received. They also saw more relevance in their work, thanks to their teachers’ efforts to craft problems that resonate with the students’ daily lives.

Parabijit Kaur, an advocate counselor who works alongside the teachers at North Queens, said making math feel relevant for students is always a tough challenge.

“A student might say, ‘Why do I need to know AX squared plus BX  equals C?’ How is that going to help me in the real world?” said Kaur.

So teachers at North Queens started using everyday examples. In one class, students were asked to solve a problem concerning monthly service charges for satellite television service. In another, the teacher crafted math questions related to the financial models of the music industry.

Little by Little

Identifying and testing such subtle changes are core elements of improvement science, and Kaur said they have been key to the academic improvements at North Queens. “Targeting a specific problem and changing what we do about it – that’s how we see progress, little by little,” said Kaur.

Jacob Leon, a 17-year-old student at North Queens, has reaped the benefits.  Before coming to the school, Leon said that when he ran into trouble with challenging math problems he “just gave up.” Now, Leon said, his teachers “make the lessons all really interesting.” They also encourage him to keep trying new approaches when he gets stuck.

“It makes you want to answer the questions more and try to figure it out,” Leon said. He is also much more engaged when he is in class. “My mind is completely on my work and nothing else.”

Back in Erick Delcham’s Algebra III classroom, Delcham brings up the very real world issue of the year-end tests that are fast approaching.

“Do you remember what your goal was, to pass the Regents’ exam?” he asks.

“Word,” says Kuron. 

“Do you feel ready?” Delcham asks.

“Yeah, thanks to you,” Kuron says with a grin. “I like the way you teach.” 

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