Collaborating in Community: Philanthropy’s Role in Cultivating Equitable K-12 Learning Environments

The BELE Network
5 min readApr 26, 2023


Dr. Gisele C. Shorter speaks with The 16:1 Podcast about the BELE Network and prioritizing student experience.

Dr. Gisele C. Shorter, Director of National Education Strategy at the Raikes Foundation, was recently featured on The 16:1 Podcast, a show about education, teaching, & learning. Her conversation with hosts Katie Day and Chelsea Adams focused on what it means for educators, parents, and students to center the student experience in all aspects of education.

As public education in the United States faces challenges from all sides, Dr. Shorter emphasizes that we all each have a role to play in building a better learning experience for all students.

Below you’ll find key moments from their discussion. Listen to the full podcast here to get the full scope of Dr. Shorter’s thoughts and see how they can apply to your own work in reimagining education.

How do you define student experience? Why should we prioritize it?

Student experience is simply how students experience school. It takes teachers, parents, administrators, and entire communities to determine if those experiences are positive or negative. For example, do students feel safe in the classroom? Are they engaged in the work or disconnected from it?

A positive student experience is when students feel safe, intellectually, and socially. When they have a sense of belonging, are engaged, and connect to their learning environment and what is being taught. The latest research in brain science shows us that students are more engaged and motivated as learners when their school experiences are shaped by not only their interest, their needs, and their perspectives.

But the student experience isn’t just a one-way train. When teachers prioritize and implement classroom strategies that increase positive student experience, like creating feedback cycles and co-designing curricula with their students, they can feel closer to their students, better understand their needs, and find their work more meaningful and positive.

What does centering the student experience look like when it comes to classroom instruction; the science of learning and development; and educational funding and policy?

Ultimately, a student’s experience is created and shaped by the systems, practices, and people in place. And as people in the system, we all have a role to play in centering student experience.

We can create — together — a shared vision of what equitable teaching and learning is. A vision of education where we prioritize the wellbeing not just of students and families, but educators too. There’s no reason for there to be tension between them. And when we account for the community’s variance in desires and ambitions, we can see dramatically successful results.

To call out an example of how this all plays out together in action:, When a student at a Chicago public elementary school brought up that they felt policed everywhere they went in school — including by security and by teachers — educators set out to address it.

Using an equity lens, educators at the school, including the school’s principal, worked together to evaluate systems of discipline that were in place. “How are we creating a space where students, educators, and the community parents have their voice heard?”

This is how they co-designed a positive student experience. They wanted to reinforce that the student is not only welcome, but that they have a right to be here. The vulnerability, especially from leadership, was essential to receiving important feedback from a young person.

The benefits of this vulnerability weren’t limited to one student, either. The improvement of this student’s experience at school led to a reevaluation and subsequent positive shifts in the school’s disciplinary guidelines and grading policy.

What are the most intense challenges being faced by your educational and institutional partners in today’s school landscape?

Young people and their communities have experienced a global pandemic and subsequent economic crisis, an ongoing climate change crisis, and an anti-racist reckoning — all in the past three years.

It became abundantly clear that folks who have historically been least well served are also disproportionately impacted by all of that toxicity and upheaval. They also had disproportionately negative impacts on young people, and much of the responsibility for countering those impacts falls on educators and school systems.

There’s also a lot in the popular discourse about teacher shortages. What many people don’t realize is that school leaders and district personnel are actually setting aside dedicated days to act as substitute teachers. It’s not just that there’s a shortage — it’s that we don’t have the skilled workforce that can actually get into classrooms and meaningfully educate our young people. These are deep, systemic issues that we’re partnering with districts on to find solutions to.

The reality is that these compounding crises likely took us back 20 years in terms of progress. That’s signaled by lower NAEP scores, student mental health and wellbeing data, and an erosion of equity forward policy and resourcing.

But with all this, we continue to have an opportunity. It’s not the time to be a glass-half-empty industry. We have an opportunity and a strong demand from students. My job in philanthropy isn’t to set an agenda or dictate the next step — it’s to listen to these folks and deploy resources in support. Parents, educators, and policymakers need to work together to reshape how kids learn and experience school. So much recent upheaval makes this a challenging, but also opportune, time to make it happen.

Listen to the full conversation about centering student experience here, and stay connected with the BELE Network by signing up for our newsletter here.

The 16:1 Podcast is a podcast about education, teaching, and learning for educators and lifelong learners. Join hosts Katie Day and Chelsea Adams for new episodes every other week.

The BELE Network is dedicated to reimagining our inequitable school system that has failed too many for too long, and is committed to transforming our classrooms into learning environments that nurture the intellectual, emotional and cultural growth of all students — especially students of color. Learn more about BELE on our website, and access our resource library to get the best and most up-to-date thinking on how to make learning environments more equitable.



The BELE Network

We are committed to creating learning environments that equitably support every student — especially students of color and low-income students.