Gates Foundation grant to fund Institute for Learning, Center for Urban Education project in Dallas

The Pitt Institute for Learning, backed by a five-year, $7.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will join other educational institutions in an effort to improve literacy for low-income students.

Partnering with Pitt’s Center for Urban Education (CUE), the Institute for Learning (IFL) and the Dallas Independent School District will assist six high schools and six of their feeder middle schools, each with predominantly African-American, Latino and low-income students, to improve English language arts and writing, according to an IFL news release.

Rosa Apodaca, the executive director for the IFL (an outreach of the Learning Research and Development Center), said she is enthusiastic about the potential of the project.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with the district to figure out how to support this growing group of students and to learn from the other entities that were funded,” Apodaca said in an e-mail. “The opportunities to collaborate with others is also a phenomenal benefit."

Elizabeth Rangel, director of communications for the LRDC, said the IFL has a history of educational improvement contracts in Dallas.

IFL and CUE will coach teams of English and language arts teachers and administrators to figure out the causes of low academic performance in these areas and set guidelines to engage these students.

“We are all learners in this,” Anthony Petrosky, co-director of the IFL, said. “We will be doing significant work to expand improvement science’s relatively new research base by working with continuous improvement methods to support our district colleagues to solve problems of practice for African-American, Latino, and low-income students so that they can meet ninth grade on-track performance indicators.”

The guiding philosophy behind the support is based on research that suggests writing is a valuable skill that, if strengthened, will help students in other courses as they matriculate through high school and universities, according to the release.

And English language arts and writing were selected as the focus because the schools’ test scores suggest that the students are struggling with them, according to Dana Thompson Dorsey, associate professor of urban education.

She said the partnership will help build a network between the middle and high schools where teachers are learning together and from each other. She added that African-American students at these schools have a 50 percent dropout rate — which she’s hoping the program will help reduce.

The CUE will act as a “hub” for the schools, focusing on addressing the issues around race, culture and community because those are often the root causes of academic performance issues, Dorsey said.

“Some of the disconnect that may occur is because of the difference in understanding between teachers and school leadership with the students they teach and the communities they serve in these public schools,” Dorsey said. “We’re including student voice and community voice throughout this entire process.”

After the root causes are identified, the teams will figure out which research-based solution suits their students’ academic needs best. Dorsey said she’s hoping that their findings can serve as a national model that is “culturally relevant and responsive,” which is something the foundation wants to focus on.

The rest of the team involved in the development: Kenneth Donaldson, associate director of strategic programming and initiatives for CUE; Sara DeMartino and Allison Escher, English language arts fellows and Glenn Nolly, leadership fellow at IFL; Christian Schunn, co-director of IFL; and Jennifer Russell, research scientist at LRDC.


Donovan Harrell, or 412-383-9905