Reading Partners CEO Adeola Whitney is creating opportunities.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Adeola (“Ola”) Whitney brings over 20 years of education leadership experience to the CEO role, including three prior years with Reading Partners. Prior to being named CEO of Reading Partners, Ola provided leadership around the expansion and implementation of iMentor’s college-success program, serving 10,000 pairs of students and their mentors nationally. In this role, she oversaw executive leadership in the Bay Area, Baltimore, Chicago, and New York City, and partnered with over 15 nonprofit organizations nationwide to ensure the effective application of iMentor’s program. Before joining iMentor, Ola served as Reading Partners’ chief regional operations officer, managing 14+ executive directors across the country. Prior to this, Ola served as executive director for Playworks for the Greater New York / Greater Newark region. Ola has also held program management and regional management roles at Kaplan and McGraw Hill. Ola earned her bachelor’s degree from Oberlin college where she majored in English and African-American studies. In her spare time, Ola enjoys spending time with her husband and three children, traveling the world, and creating memories. In this interview, Ola shares her passion for literacy, learning, results — and she also shares very personal life lessons that she made part of her mission to help others.
The past couple years served as a crucible out of which emerged platforms such as Reading Partners Connects. Could you tell us more about the technology behind the platform and some of the features involved?
The widespread school interruptions of the past few years have exacerbated pre-existing opportunity gaps and disrupted learning that has disproportionately impacted Black and Hispanic students and students experiencing economic disadvantages. In other words, the digital divide has further marginalized families and communities across the country.
All students benefit from explicit and systematic literacy instruction, but unfortunately education systems in the U.S. have inequitably distributed access to quality educational resources among students based on systemic barriers often related to race and socioeconomic status. Reading Partners recognizes both the lost instructional time students have endured during COVID-19 as well as the loss of many teachers as critical issues having an impact on students. Our high-dosage, one-on-one tutoring model offers a way for students to accelerate literacy learning they missed, as well as focus on building the confidence needed to succeed.
‘Our high-dosage, one-on-one tutoring model offers a way for students to accelerate literacy learning they missed, as well as focus on building the confidence needed to succeed.’
In response to the pandemic, we rapidly pivoted our in-school community volunteer model to enable online sessions via our Reading Partners Connects platform, an innovation that has allowed our volunteer tutors to continue to support students in an online environment using lessons adapted from Reading Partners’ evidence-based curriculum and proven program.
Reading Partners Connects provides students and tutors the ability to connect virtually through audio and video web conferencing in a secure, safe, and enriching environment. To ensure web conferencing between the student and tutor is stable and secure, we utilize Zoom for all tutoring sessions. The tutors are provided access to our proprietary digital curriculum that is utilized during each tutoring session and available directly within the platform.
Tutors and students also have access to digital versions of books appropriate for students’ current grade levels and independent reading levels. The e-books are used for immersive read-alongs to model fluent grade level reading and have discussions about the texts, as well as opportunities for students to practice specific skills they are learning in Reading Partners tutoring sessions.
Behind the scenes, our staff members and AmeriCorps members have access to a console that’s utilized to schedule and manage tutoring sessions, and tutors can use the platform to take notes after every session that provide important information on student engagement and progress, and where to begin the next lesson. Additionally, our national administrators and regional staff members can access a data-driven dashboard to monitor and track tutoring session metrics, and review tutor notes.
What role should tech play in learning and education?
In the larger education ecosystem, there have been a lot of edtech products introduced into the market over the past 20 years, some with and others without consideration given to what we know works in early literacy instruction or with evidence of impact on student learning. Throughout that time, we have continued to recognize the value and impact that a positive, encouraging adult tutor can have with students by spending one-on-one time with them focused on building core literacy skills and confidence.
When technology can support foundational learning best practices, it can be very useful. That’s why we designed Reading Partners Connects to be an extension of, rather than a replacement for, our traditional in-person program.
That’s why both programs pair each student with a volunteer tutor for two sessions per week and why Reading Partners Connects offers the same evidence-based curriculum materials, scripted lessons that anyone can use, and coaching that have supported volunteers through our traditional model.
In your view, what is the state of literacy and reading in the US and beyond—and how is Reading Partners leveraging technology toward this end?
In the past few years, pre-service teachers have been going through state-approved teacher prep programs and often coming out using a “balanced reading” approach to literacy versus a “science of reading” approach. Even with district-approved professional development, many elementary teachers often do not feel fully competent or supported in delivering literacy-focused, whole-classroom, and small-group lessons and how best to use diagnostic, formative, and progress monitoring tools and data.
We know that systematic phonics instruction and word reading are essential though not fully sufficient for reading comprehension; after all, the point of students learning their alphabet and letter sounds, how to decode an unfamiliar word, and how to read connected text in an authentic reading environment are important skills because we seek to help the student reader create meaning from a text and through dialogue with others about the text.
Therefore, we believe in structured, systematic, explicit literacy skill instruction along with the building of background knowledge and vocabulary as well as key comprehension skills. Our programs create engaging learning opportunities for students by helping them to see themselves in the texts that are used, ensuring that our tutors are connecting with students on a personal level, and working alongside them to make reading fun, relevant, and engaging.
Accordingly, our curriculum has remained aligned with the science of reading. Where we are spending a lot of energy, more so than ever, is on accelerating student learning and focusing our efforts on students who are experiencing the least opportunity.
We not only leverage technology with our Reading Partners Connects platform to ensure both our students and volunteer tutors can stay connected and engaged in important literacy activities no matter what barriers may exist, but we’ve also leveraged technology in other ways to generate literacy access for our students and their families. We have established multiple partnerships with digital library platforms to give students access to thousands of titles from any device, and we formed a separate partnership with a texting platform recognizing that for some students the only connected device outside of school may be a mobile phone. We are continuing to look for innovation partners that have learning apps or platforms that can be integrated into what we do with students and/or can support caregivers at home in supporting student engagement and learning outside of classroom and school time.
What sort of results are you getting and particularly with Connects?
In the 2020-21 school year, 94% of the nearly 111,000 tutoring sessions our tutors delivered to students were conducted online via Reading Partners Connects. In that same year, 85% of K-2 Reading Partners students (and more than two thirds of all Reading Partners K-5 students) met or exceeded their primary literacy growth goals.
And despite the shift to an online platform, 91% of tutors reported being satisfied with their volunteer experience (down only slightly from the 95% satisfaction we see in a typical year).
The statistics were similar in the 2021-22 school year with the only exception being that half of tutoring sessions (138,084 in all) were delivered via Reading Partners Connects and the other half were delivered in person.
What trends are you watching in edtech that will inform your future direction?
We have a keen interest in ensuring that proven technological advancements in the classroom benefit all students. As difficult as the pandemic years have been, and particularly for students from historically marginalized communities, we are fortunate to live in a time when technological solutions can provide access to resources that otherwise wouldn’t be available to all students.
As I mentioned earlier, through key partnerships, Reading Partners has made digital libraries and literacy tips via texting available to thousands of students. As an organization that holds a deep commitment to race equity, diversity, and inclusion, we are most interested in finding ways to leverage technology to advance educational equity. Other organizations have done the same. Pre-pandemic, the Club de Niños y Niñas del D.F. & Estado de México AC, for example, held in-person programming to strengthen the learning, health, creativity, and leadership skills of their students. In 2020, they rapidly pivoted their programming into “virtual Zoom sessions, piloted new systems for virtual learning, and enabled a 24-hour line that lets students struggling with the pandemic’s emotional toll speak to a psychologist.”
We are also keeping a close eye out for rigorous research studies of online learning for K-5 students to better understand what is working and what is not in the edtech space, while planning our own high-quality, independent evaluation of the Reading Partners Connects platform over the next year. We know from other companies’ research and experiences that just adding more bells and whistles, sounds, colors, etc. can actually be distracting for students; we want to ensure there are fun, engaging activities for students but also that learning objectives will be met.
You’ve been in this area of mentoring, tutoring, nonprofits, and education for some time now—what past experiences inform your current approach?
And what has been your original purpose in life regarding these areas that really drives you forward and makes Reading Partners Connects just part of your overall push forward toward helping students succeed?
Speaking from the perspective of an organization that’s been growing in impact over the past 22 years, one of the main reasons for our strong results year after year is because we’ve never viewed our program as static or complete. We continually ask ourselves what else we could be doing to support student growth and confidence.
We assess and make optimizations to our program constantly. Outside of Reading Partners Connects, here are three ways we’ve evolved as an organization over the past few years:
We’ve recognized the need to partner with communities – In the past few years, we’ve come to realize that there is so much more power and potential when we do our work with communities, not to them or for them. At Reading Partners, we don’t purport to be a panacea, rather we seek to use our expertise, continued learnings, and our ability to inspire a committed network filled with diverse voices, strengths, and perspectives to partner meaningfully with communities. If we’re doing our jobs properly, we also bring humility and an eagerness to learn the approaches that are right for each community.
We have a firm commitment to race equity, diversity, and inclusion – We have a responsibility to our students and their families to not cause undue harm in our approach. So it’s essential that we make it a priority to train everyone at Reading Partners to understand unconscious bias and the history of systemic racism in our country and how that manifests today in our educational systems. We also have a responsibility to frame why we do this work and why this work matters in a way that can inspire others to modify practices that may unintentionally harm communities. We recognize the importance of representation (for our students to see and build relationships with tutors of color), as well as building trust across lines of difference (with people who look differently than they do).
We believe in the importance of social-emotional learning – Building strong relationships with our students and supporting students holistically is essential to our model and philosophy about learning. We’ve know we cannot focus solely on the academic implications of children’s literacy. Our work is advanced when we look at the whole child rather than a set of data points and corresponding lessons. Our students are resilient, and have a hunger and eagerness to connect and learn. This is why we integrate social emotional learning into what we do. As a result, our volunteers receive training on social-emotional learning — what it is, how it is baked into our program model, and what it looks like to support students’ social-emotional learning. We want there to be space for relationship-building which can amplify students’ literacy skill-building as well as the development of reading confidence, persistence, and engagement.
In terms of my personal life, there was an experience I had when I was just starting sixth grade. I went back to school shopping with my parents and I witnessed a racially-charged harassment. I saw my father basically place himself in harm’s way to support another human who he had never met. Coming out of the mall and walking to our car, we could hear a woman screaming, a very visibly pregnant Black woman, who was thrown to the ground by two white department store security officers who later called the police. My father went to make sure that they would stop throwing her and being so physically harmful to her given that she was expecting a child, but also just because she’s a human and there’s no reason to be so violent. He went back toward the mall and told us to go to the car. The guards hurled racial epithets his way and her way. I believe they were claiming she had stolen something, which it turned out she had not. My father took photos of what was going on. The next day on the front page of the only Black newspaper in our town was the scene of what happened in an article written by my father. He was the city editor of the newspaper at that time. After that, the Ohio chapter of the NAACP boycotted all of the affiliated department stores in our state that year.
My father saw this woman, did not know her, but saw injustice underway and felt compelled to do something about it, and so he did. I think that just taught me to try to always speak up for people and always pay things forward. That experience led me to a bunch of different volunteer opportunities and resulted in me being part of various youth development nonprofits.
When I went to college, I majored in English and African-American Studies and just did more volunteering. It wasn’t until later in college that I really learned what social justice was and realized the crossroads between social justice and education in this country. For young people, especially in economically-disadvantaged communities, the resources on average aren’t as great as in more affluent areas, and therefore that impacts educational access and opportunity. That’s why organizations like Reading Partners were so essential before the pandemic and even more essential now that there is a growing awareness that high-impact tutoring can be part of the path to recovery for so many students who are striving to catch up in reading.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org