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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In the United States, 4.2 million youth experience homelessness each year, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ peers. True Colors United believes that in order to develop effective policy solutions to end youth homelessness, youth with lived experience must be a part of the solution. And no organization is doing more than True Colors to bring LGBTQ youth to the table in a meaningful way.

One way that True Colors is empowering youth is through its National Youth Forum on Homelessness (NYFH), a group founded in 2015 to ensure that the national conversation is informed by and filtered through the perspectives of young people who have experienced homelessness, and that strategies to end homelessness are generated by youth and young adults themselves.

The group is comprised exclusively of young people who have experienced homelessness who use personal expertise, research, and data to assess the effectiveness of programs that assist youth experiencing homelessness. The primary goal of NYFH is to identify and analyze policy that impacts youth who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness, and then advocate for strong policy based upon that analysis. 

“Typically, youth homelessness policy has been driven by adults without lived experience. Because of that, for decades now, decision makers in the homelessness field have been running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to figure out how to fix the system, to no avail. People who have navigated the systems of youth homelessness themselves can more effectively cut through the bureaucracy and get to the crux of how these systems work to bring about real change,” said Rivianna Hyatt, True Colors Program Officer and a founding member of the NYFH. 

With the Raikes Foundation’s support, True Colors has expanded the NYFH from 15 members to 25, and increased both the staffing devoted to NYFH and the number of paid hours that NYFH members are able to devote to this work. The Foundation has also supported a shift in the strategic direction of True Colors’ focus. Whereas previously True Colors worked to facilitate youth collaboration, now, thanks to increased capacity and funding, True Colors has created a curriculum to build the power of young people to effect policy change. 

“Thanks in part to the NYFH, young people have been in the room for big decision-making moments on homelessness policy. That has given us so much momentum - what we had thought about and hypothesized about building these spaces worked, and now it’s just a matter of continuing the work to ensure that youth are heard and their voices are uplifted,” continued Hyatt. 

The NYFH is broken up into four different working groups: training and education, communications, youth action, and policy and advocacy. Staying true to True Colors’ mission, youth set the agenda for each group. For example, the policy and advocacy working group is currently thinking about topics that relate to homelessness in regards to housing, equity, and education in response to the current demonstrations for racial equity. One of the group’s goals is to think about homelessness through an intersectional lens, rather than a monolithic view. And the group is also building a COVID and racial equity youth action toolkit with True Colors staff that they ultimately hope to build into a youth action course to teach young people how to engage in advocacy. 

Critically, the NYFH has also had an incredible impact on its members. “The NYFH offers young people an opportunity to thrive in advocacy work and add their voices to a national conversation on homelessness. The young people feel pride and ownership in their work, and gain invaluable experience in leadership and public speaking as a result,” said Ken Lopez, True Colors Program officer for the NYFH. 

In addition to empowering youth to change homelessness policy, True Colors, in partnership with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and with support from the Raikes Foundation, is tracking the myriad barriers and challenges youth experiencing homelessness face with the State Index on Youth Homelessness. The Index provides states, advocates, grassroots activists, and youth themselves with tools to take concrete action to protect the safety, development, health, and dignity of youth experiencing homelessness, in order to help end the cycle of homelessness for good.

To learn more about True Colors and to support their work, visit truecolorsunited.org.


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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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