Closing the Achievement Gap

In this week’s blog, USF Presidential Fellow within the Leo T. McCarthy Center, Chuck Collins describes how the Equity Interns program began with the help of his colleagues dating back from 2019. Keep reading to find out how the program has evolved each year to combat injustices within the educational system and its upcoming celebration of commitment to youth. 

Closing the achievement gap for children and youth disproportionately affected by historical factors, social determinants and the pandemic through the deployment of college student resources in classrooms.

When I retired as President and Chief Executive Officer of the YMCA of San Francisco in 2021, I left behind a body of work to which I was deeply committed.  Core to the nearly two decades in the Y was my concern that many young people have been systemically challenged to achieve their highest potential.  Much of my work focused resources to close that gap.

Now, the very challenges we faced before the COVID pandemic have been exacerbated by the long effects of students being further under-resourced during the two years when many schools closed in person classrooms and substituted remote learning resources. Children already challenged by poverty, systemic racism and other structural issues fell even more behind.

Much is said about changing the system that creates disproportionately poor outcomes for such young scholars.  While this must be addressed systemically, time cannot wait for young people already in school.  The outcomes of student/scholars who underperform translate into high levels of social, economic and health failure.  Students who don’t achieve defined levels of reading and math in elementary school can be predicted to have higher levels of incarceration, chronic physical and mental health outcomes and low economic productivity.  The massive nature of this situation requires the best minds to create and deploy solutions in service of our young people who cannot wait for the system to change.  We must simultaneously address scholars now in classrooms while changing the underlying systems of injustice.

We don’t need more data to confirm what we already know.  As our young people continue to say – “less talk and more action!”

The Origin Story

In 2018, before both my retirement and the pandemic, I met Valerie Biden Owens, Catherine McLaughlin and Sebastian Stelios Jannelli, colleagues at University of Delaware Biden School of Public Policy.  Knowing that I was already deeply committed to this work, we decided to augment the framework we deployed within the YMCA of San Francisco, Power Scholars Academy (PSA).  Our idea was to turn college students into classroom learning resources to support teachers, families and their communities. 

Equity Interns began as a partnership among the YMCA of San Francisco Power Scholars Academy, the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and the Common Good, and the University of Delaware Joseph R. Biden School of Public Policy. 

Equity Interns was inspired by Valerie, Catherine and me over lunch in San Francisco in 2019.  Together with Maysha Bell, Executive Director, Youth Achievement, Innovation & Impact at the YMCA of San Francisco, we also quickly recruited Father Paul Fitzgerald, President of the University of San Francisco (USF) and he immediately engaged LTMC Senior Director Derick Brown as our partner.  We planned to launch the program in summer 2020 bringing together college students at University of Delaware and University of San Francisco.  

Year One and the Pandemic Effect

Plans for an in-person program were shattered by the COVID-19 Pandemic.  This caused us to pivot to a virtual model wherein the college interns would engage remotely and be assigned to several PSA classrooms in San Francisco. Not withstanding the substantial barriers posed by this remote and scattered-site learning model, our 2021 PSA Scholars with equity interns achieved an additional one month of English language and two months of math proficiency in comparison to classes without the interns.

Interns themselves received continuous educational development while being engaged in reading and discussion topic assignments, professional learning community meetings, and a weekly speaker series.  2021 included the following speakers: Representative Madina Wilson Anton from Delaware District 26, Mayor London Breed from San Francisco, Senator Sarah McBride from Delaware, and Valerie Biden Owens.  While the primary goal of the pilot year program was to increase K-8 students’ academic success, we also had the opportunity to empower a generation of public service-minded college graduates.

Year Two

The second year of the equity interns program allowed us to move from being remote to being in person.  We decided to cluster the interns into three groups who were deployed into three targeted PSA classrooms in San Francisco.  Our theory was to center the interns and to see how that concentration affected PSA outcomes.

Much was learned from contrasting the 2021 “scattered” versus 2022 “concentrated” approach.  The concentration allowed the interns to work better as groups and to see how particular equity-focused approaches could mirror concerns present in the classrooms. Technology, language, family and other factors were observed and this allowed the interns to focus their attention on conditions and barriers which had to be addressed which are often beyond the PSA classroom resources.

Year Three

2023 allows us to bring together the equity interns in-person for a second year and to deploy them in three teams focused on three classrooms shaped by our two prior years.  What we have learned so far is that the interns can make a difference. USF, University of Delaware and YMCA SF have allocated even more resources to growing the program in service of the PSA Scholars, their families and communities.

We are also fortunate that in Fall 2021, the Biden School of Public Policy & Administration launched a new civil discourse pilot program, the Ithaca Program, supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF).  This initiative will further enhance and focus students’ journey toward becoming engaged and effective citizens and to work in partnership to develop policy solutions.

We believe this match between SNF Ithaca and the LTMC will accelerate closing the achievement gaps which are the focus of the equity intern program.

As we launch the 2023 program, we have learned much that will be incorporated this summer.  We have additional resources that have been contributed by each partner emphasizing the importance of program and financial sustainability necessary to improve current outcomes and to change the systems that create the gaps in youth development and educational achievement.

Recruitment of the interns was enhanced to match college students with a strong mindset towards changing the system by understanding equity and applying it in PSA.  Curriculum is being designed and tailored to ensure that the interns understand the cultural and community contexts that produce differences in student outcomes.  Allocating sufficient time to develop the interns as teams and orienting them with the PSA teachers, the scholars’ families and communities facilitates a deeper connection to the overall program.  Evaluation is a necessary tool for continuous improvement and the interns will play an important role in assessment.  We will provide team-building extracurricular activities to strengthen the connection among all of the program elements and to enjoy San Francisco and the Bay Area. 

Our PSA graduation on July 14 is a celebration of achievement.  We bring the scholars, their families, teachers, interns and supporters together as a community to express our shared commitment to our youth achieving their highest potential.

Our final equity intern program component happens along with PSA graduation when we allocate time for the interns to reflect on the summer.  These learnings will help is to improve and potentially scale our model.  

We heartily invite you to join us at the graduation.  News of the graduation plans and other open houses will be shared through our LTMC website.

We hope that you will join us on this journey towards creating a just and sustainable future in which all youth achieve their highest potential and in turn make a valuable contribution to society.   

If you’d like more information about PSA and Equity Interns or to make a financial contribution, please contact me at and I’d be happy to engage you in this initiative.

Learn more about the Equity Interns program here!

academicsCatherine McLaughlincovid-19Derick BrownEducationEquity InternsFather Paul FitzgeraldMayor London BreedMaysha BellPower Scholars Academyremote learning resourcesRepresentative Madina Wilson AntonscholarsSchoolSebastian Stelios JannelliSenator Sarah McBrideStavros Niarchos FoundationstudentsUniversity of Delaware Biden School of Public PolicyUSF Presidential FellowValerie Biden OwensYMCAYMCA of San FranciscoYouth

arwilliamsonraun • June 9, 2023

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