United In Cause For Improving Public Learning

By David Mullen, Katy Trail Weekly.

A Dallas-based nonprofit organization comprised of business, education, community and faith-based individuals is doing more than assessing how to improve the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). They are united in making a difference through acumen and action.

Abby Williams is the founder of United to Learn. Their mission is to “address opportunity gaps with research-driven, district-aligned programming across 50 DISD elementary schools.”

“I love the work of United to Learn,” Williams said. “The idea is that there did not seem to be — historically — a strong bridge in established infrastructure where community members, corporate entities and organizations can truly support individual schools in real impactful, sustained student achievement. But that didn’t mean that the community didn’t want it.

“We’ve created United to Learn as a partnership both with individual schools and with DISD that can step in after public dollars have been expended with investments that truly would drive sustainable students in student achievement,” Williams said. With a focus on elementary schools, United to Learn takes a hard look at critical issues like third grade reading scores, where early childhood work is in that space and other factors to improve education in public schools.

Williams, based on “personal lived experience” she said, wanted to do more for schools. Raised in Seguin, Williams “grew up a very poor, very proud public-school student in a really small town,” although Williams was quick to add that Seguin had four Dairy Queens. “My public school was my safe haven. I think about my elementary school, and I smile.

“I think about my teachers that took me under their wings,” Williams said. “There was one teacher — in particular — who without a doubt probably saved my life and my family’s. She befriended my mother. She took care of us, but she also instilled a love of learning and love of reading in me. At the same time, she made me believe that ‘You can do this.’ I know what can happen in the hallways of elementary schools and how important that is.”

Williams is the mother of five boys, enough to field a basketball team. “When we built our home, it was very important to [husband] Todd where the basketball court would go,” Williams said. “And not one of them plays.”

Her perspective on local learning comes from local knowledge. A few years ago, Abby and Todd sent the youngest boys to a private, all boys grade school for a stretch. “I was over analyzing the situation,” Williams said. “I obviously got to make that choice. The circle of parents that I was in had a different experience with public schools than mine. How they spoke about our public school system did not accurately reflect what I believed was the value DISD provided and the significance of DISD in this city.”

Instead of telling the parents that they might be wrong, Williams set out to “create an experience to show the parents where they might be misguided and didn’t understand and where they might be right on point.”

She found that other parents and community leaders felt the same way as she did about public education in general and DISD specifically. “I heard, ‘I want to be in our schools.’ ‘I am trying to be in our schools.’ ‘Why is it so difficult to be connected to my local public school?'” United to Learn was born.

“We wanted to create that experience, which is why our mission statement says, ‘changing lives by transforming the relationship between schools and community.’ How can we ensure that the greater community better understands public schools, how public schools are financed, are run and are managed. How can we better appreciate our public schools, our educators, our students, challenges, quality and how we can better support our public schools.”

According to United to Learn, each initiative is rooted in one of four pillars: “strengthening social and emotional health; creating aspirational learning environments; accelerating student achievement in literacy and activating an informed community.”

While schools are provided tax dollars to operate, “at United to Learn, we make investments in what is left. What are the things a school feels it still needs?” said Williams. “Sometimes that is extra teacher training. Sometimes that is extra textbooks in a different language or different enrichment opportunities.
Sometimes it’s just basic school supplies or campus improvements or teacher’s lounges. And certainly [we] fund lots of tutors in this day and age.”

United to Learn follows criteria in developing their research driven initiatives including “to improve our schools’ social emotional health, create an aspirational learning environment, drive student literacy achievement and activate an informed community empowered to advance for educational equity from a culturally competent perspective.” And it is working.

Based on United to Learn data, despite coming out of the wake of unfinished learning caused by COVID-19, United to Learn initiatives are making a difference. Established United to Learn schools perform five points higher than their district peers. STAAR reading achievement has increased by 39 percent in partner schools.

“Students reading on grade level or better are three times more likely to go to college,” Williams said. “Not every 18-year-old needs to go on to college. But what every 18-year-old does need is a pathway to a living wage or better sustainable career.”

United to Learn initiatives were embraced by former DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. United to Learn is bringing together a panel discussion on the upcoming Texas legislative session on Friday, Jan. 6 featuring Dr. Stephanie Elizalde, the new DISD superintendent who recently replaced the retired Hinojosa.

More information about United to Learn, how to volunteer, become a partner and ways to make a tax-deductible contribution to the 501(c)(3) nonprofit can be found at unitedtolearn.org.

“These partnerships seem to be working. We saw growth across our partner schools before COVID-19, and our schools had surpassed the statewide average which is unheard of especially for schools with high English language learners and poverty numbers,” Williams said. “During COVID, we saw roughly half the loss that peer schools had seen. Since then, we have returned to pre-COVID levels, but there is a lot of work to be done. Having the community stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our schools addressing the gap in opportunities and resources is absolutely critical. It’s hard to put a dollar [figure] on what real encouragement feels like.”

Thank you to Katy Trail Weekly for this article!