What Kids Need to Succeed: CZI’s Latest Moves to Advance a "Whole Child” Approach to Education

photo: rSnapshotPhotos/shutterstock

photo: rSnapshotPhotos/shutterstock

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative recently disbursed $3.3 million in grants to four organizations working to gather evidence around how best to implement strategies that help kids learn life skills—like how to make decisions, develop an independent sense of agency and follow their own interests and passions.

CZI defines an education that accounts for the “whole child” as one that addresses a child’s academic needs along with her social and emotional, cognitive, identity, physical and mental needs.

This emphasis in CZI’s work underscores that its approach to education differs from philanthropies piloted by other billionaire donors—like Eli Broad and the Walton family—which have focused on reforming K-12 systems through support of school choice, teacher accountability, and related ideas. Critics of that approach have long argued that addressing what happens with children outside of schools, where so many kids are growing up in stressful, high-poverty environments, is critically important. CZI clearly agrees with that premise.

As part of its whole child work, CZI has helped build the evidence base for this type of education, in part through funding studies addressing a range of needs that can change a child’s academic and behavioral outcomes for the better.

CZI believes the research supports its whole child approach to education. Now, the funder is turning its attention to translating that research into practice. The emphasis here is on implementation.

“We know there is evidence for why all these things matter, why a whole child approach matters,” said Brooke Stafford-Brizard, CZI’s education director. “We’ve made a hunger in the field for practical, accessible strategies that we can share across schools and classrooms and districts.”

The hunt for practical, accessible strategies is the focus of these four grants.

Of the $3.3 million, $750,000 will go to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL); $1.2 million will go to the nonprofit GripTape over three years; Peer Health Exchange will get $700,000 and the remaining $685,000 will go to the Roses in Concrete Community School in Oakland, California.

At first glance, the four grantees may not have a lot in common. CASEL is a research and advocacy organization, and a major leader in the social and emotional learning field. GripTape is a youth-led and organized nonprofit that gives kids small grants to pursue projects they’re passionate about outside of school. The Peer Health Exchange is a nonprofit that trains college students to provide supplementary health education in low-income high schools—sometimes, their only source of health education. Roses in Concrete is a K-8 lab school in East Oakland.

However, these grantees all share a commitment to helping kids develop life skills that fall outside the outcomes sought in a traditional classroom. CASEL helps districts, schools and teachers adopt curriculum and techniques that encourage students to develop social and emotional skills in tandem with academic outcomes.

GripTape encourages kids to identify their own passions and cultivate the grit to follow them through. The Peer Health Exchange empowers high school students to make health decisions. Roses in Concrete is committed to instilling self-discipline, integrity, love, hope and a commitment to justice and equity in its students.

Additionally, each of the grants funds reporting on how the organizations put into practice components of the whole child theory. CASEL will use funding to engage scholars and practitioners to ensure that social and emotional learning as a field reflects the most recent science, best practices and policies. GripTape’s three-year grant will go toward identifying conditions and variables—like interest, authority and purpose—that help kids develop agency and self-direction.

At Peer Health Exchange, funding will support collaboration with experts in adolescent development to build evidence for skills-based preventive health education—the approach the nonprofit uses. The experts will also develop more scientifically grounded definitions and standards in adolescent decision-making. Through evidence, CZI hopes to encourage more investment in effective health education through the health and education systems.

The grant to Roses in Concrete Community School will fund a partnership with the Teaching Excellence Network to expand a pilot program to train teachers in handling student trauma. Specifically, the trauma training will give teachers tools to address kids’ exposure to the toxic levels of stress, poverty and violence that are common in under-resourced communities. The original iteration of the pilot focused on the secondary trauma teachers face through their work.

Of the four grants, this one is most reminiscent of the grants CZI released in February, which largely focused on supporting teachers. Of those grants, $75,000 went to a pilot program to address the emotional toll of teaching. As part of the program, 160 new public school teachers were provided with techniques to promote self-care, stress management and emotional well-being.

Related: Teaching K-12 is Brutally Hard. Here's How CZI Is Offering Support

Another grant from the round released in February went to training veteran teachers who wanted to incorporate social and emotional learning into their classrooms.

Between the two sets of grants, CZI is demonstrating its keen interests in the principles behind a holistic approach to learning and a clear desire to create a pathway for those principles into schools and classrooms.

These grants aren’t huge, by most standards—including when compared to some of CZI’s past education gifts. However, that’s appropriate for the stage of this work, Stafford-Brizard said.

“The whole child space is an area where we have a tremendous amount of leaning to do,” she said. The size of the grants “reflect the amount of learning we need to do. You see consistency across the projects, because they are smaller-scale, focused on deep learning around the connection between the research and the practice, and the translation of that research. And then we’ll be able to determine what we can do with that.”