“Without women, we’ll miss out on at least half of the perspective and talent in this world. Scientists, engineers and computer programmers are creating the systems that run our world.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Caprice Young. Dr. Young is responsible for leading the 20 Learn4Life schools, which includes more than 80 learning centers in California, Ohio, and Michigan. Raised in a host foster family, she has committed her life to supporting students whose needs exceed the scope of traditional public schools. Young left IBM in 1999 to serve as a member and president of the elected Los Angeles Unified School Board. Beginning in 2003, she served as the founding CEO of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). Since 2008, she has provided executive leadership to a range of education, philanthropy and business organizations undergoing major transformations. Young is a recipient of the Coro Crystal Eagle for Excellence in Public Service, the CSU Los Angeles Educator of the Year in 2016, and a member of the national Charter School Hall of Fame. She serves on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, including the Fordham Foundation and the Texas First Education Foundation, and was recently appointed to a Fellowship at the Broad Academy. She holds a bachelor’s from Yale University, a Master of Public Administration from USC and a doctorate in educational leadership from UCLA.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I grew up in a host foster family. My biological parents were the foster parents. We had a boys’ room, a girls’ room, a parents’ loft, and a clay room because my mother is a sculptor and special education teacher. I’ve had more than three dozen brothers and sisters from all kinds of backgrounds. In 1998, while I was working for IBM, the Mayor of Los Angeles asked me to run for the LAUSD school board. After four years on that board, I realized I needed to commit the rest of my life to improving education for underserved students just like my brothers and sisters.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ve found that lots of people think kids drop out of school because they are lazy and that is rarely the case. My students work harder than most students because they have significant life challenges. I had the pleasure of getting to know a young couple who graduated this year shortly after turning 20 years old. They were raising two kids, a four-year-old and an infant, while working three jobs between them. When they had their first child at 15-years-old, their parents kicked them out and they were homeless for a while. Not surprisingly the young father found that he could no longer identify with other 15-year-olds in school while he was working nights and raising a child. He didn’t like how much time was wasted in a traditional school setting, so he sought out Learn4Life where every moment is focused on intense one-on-one instruction and the flexible schedule allowed him to work nights as a building manager and days as a repair man. Now this young couple is continuing their hard work raising kids while going to college.
Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The biggest mistake, not a funny one, but a big one, was voting against a teachers’ raise while I was on the school board. I wanted to vote for it, but I was worried that we didn’t have the money and that it would mean increasing class size and cutting the number of high school counselors and school nurses. My colleague said, “Don’t worry. The superintendent will find the money.” Mine was the only ‘no’ vote, and then the superintendent did find the money! I learned never to trust the reports because there may be money squirreled away somewhere, or not. So now I listen to my colleagues more and I dig and dig and dig until I know the truth myself.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! Two big ones. Dr. Frances H. Arnold, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, gave us a genome sequencer, so my science teachers have been working with the scientists at Illumina to roll out DNA sequencing as part of Learn4Life’s high school science curriculum. Students — especially socio-economically disadvantaged ones — at most traditional schools don’t have this kind of unique access to hands-on, cutting edge science learning. When students get to do real science, they end up LOVING science.
The second is the radical expansion of our HOPE program for parenting teens. Often, young parents don’t come to school because they can’t find childcare. In the HOPE program, the students bring their babies with them, so they learn about parenting in addition to their academics and we help them get medical care and other resources, so their babies have a healthy start. We have toddlers who love to come to school with mom and/or dad.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
Education and expanding access to personalized learning has been my personal mission. I have started and operated schools, been an elected official, served on education boards, led education philanthropy work, run education technology companies, served on education commissions, authorized charter schools, helped people become teachers, gone to school myself, and raised my own children in schools. Most of all, I have gotten to know and learn from some of the most brilliant education leaders in the country.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I’d give it a D. It is failing a majority of students and that needs to be addressed with urgency. Some schools deserve a much higher grade, but overall the U.S. public education system hasn’t kept up with a changing world and it’s leaving a lot of kids behind. Dropouts and failing students are more likely to be disadvantaged and/or a minority. And we know that dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated at some point. In addition, we’ve acknowledged that bullying is a big problem, but it still has not been resolved. Many students have suffered trauma that impacts their ability to learn but we haven’t addressed their specific needs in most traditional schools. Schools must be positive places for students, not a place of fear.
We have a moral obligation to ensure all kids get a good education and that means changing the way we do things and addressing systemic biases in the process. When wealthy students go to schools that don’t have counselors, nurses, arts, afterschool programs, tutoring, or enrichment, their parents pay to supplement what the government provides. Students whose parents cannot afford those vital programs still need those services, but schools in higher poverty neighborhoods usually receive lower funding and have more difficulty hiring and keeping teachers. This inequity in public education is an issue of social justice because poor kids are made worse off while their more affluent peers have more resources. We need to level the playing field by leveling up, not leveling down.
Students need more than just a diploma. They need to learn life skills, be introduced to career tech education, and make a four-year college education a real option. One size doesn’t fit all in education which is why we need a personalized learning model for each student.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
Yes, by looking at success we can do more of what works and less of what doesn’t (and know the difference).
1. Nationally, we’ve improved our science standards. I’m optimistic about science education of our schools over the next decade.
2. We’re starting to see a real focus on students of all backgrounds getting involved in computer science.
3. We’re broadening the dialogue about options other than going to college. We’re finally talking about Career Tech Education (CTE) again, along with experiential learning and new kinds of pathways. Most kids who go to college have to work their ways through. CTE certifications earned during high school can help them get higher paying jobs in college, helping them to be more successful.
4. Parents are more aware that they need to be involved, and that starts with choosing where their kids go to school. Wealthy parents have been actively involved in selecting the right school or neighborhood for their children. Now, all parents are realizing they have to pay attention, but they often don’t have access to good choices. Expanding school choice and great options for all families will even the playing field, and we have seen more and more parents exercising non-traditional options.
5. I’m excited about the increased focus on social and emotional learning. Young people need to learn how to create strong interpersonal bonds, work in teams, navigate significant challenges and tragedies, and process their own emotions. I’m happy to see that becoming a priority.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
Yes, the priorities would be to:
1. Fire people who harm children. You would think this would be obvious, but all the bureaucratic protections have made it nearly impossible (and certainly cost-prohibitive) to fire abusive teachers and other personnel. That must change.
2. Stop fighting the idea of school choice for families who are not wealthy. Families that can afford to move to a good school district or put their kids in private schools have always had school choice. We need to allow all families to choose where their children attend school. Students should not be forced to go to neighborhood schools if they don’t meet their needs. That is a big part of what is driving the dropout crisis. Charter schools like Learn4Life, that help tens of thousands of at-risk, poor and minority students, are in a constant struggle for acceptance.
3. Rethink secondary school requirements. In high school, stop piling requirements of “must take” courses because that just makes high school narrow and boring. It should be a time of discovery. Not everything needs to happen in high school when lots of skills, like personal finance and time management, need to be learned much earlier. We can make middle school more demanding and interesting and use it as a time for young people to develop identity. Gang leaders know that eleven-year-olds have talent and project management skills and are putting them to work. We have to compete. School needs to be more interesting and affirming than gang life and offer them a real future that is tangible.
4. We really must concentrate resources and talent in addressing the inequality that exists in our education system. There are still school districts where it’s impossible to get a college prep education, and high schools with a dropout rate exceeding 25 percent. Until we can get the resources and talent into those places, we’ll still have huge national challenges.
5. We need to dramatically improve special education programs and gifted education. We must stop perceiving divergent thinking as a disability and start understanding that peoples’ brains work differently so how they learn must be shifted. We’ve seen students on the autism spectrum, with dyslexia, or having attention deficits go on to be successful CEOs, programmers, writers, artists and entrepreneurs after suffering or even failing under the traditional classroom-based education structure. We can’t be shy about supporting gifted education and working harder to identify kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t get the resources they need.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
We are improving but still doing poorly overall. First, we must pay teachers more. A lot of talented people in the STEM field don’t become teachers because of the low salary. We need to pay more to get science talent in the classroom. Second, start early. Introduce science much earlier — preschool — and have kids do physical things like creating, building, mixing substances and thinking about the world around them. Gravity is exciting but we don’t even talk about it much until 5th grade or even later. Who doesn’t love dropping eggs off balconies? Third, engage kids’ curiosity. We need better learning environments to inspire students to question, contemplate and imagine. I’ve seen exciting hands-on early grade level science in summer programs that could be reaching young people year-round.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Without women, we’ll miss out on at least half of the perspective and talent in this world. Scientists, engineers and computer programmers are creating the systems that run our world. I’m concerned about what will happen if the people who are developing artificial intelligence are all from the same class, gender and ethnicity. Codes contain biases of the people who are creating them. Those biases are literally hard coded into algorithms that decide which people get or do not get access to opportunity. Between Artificial Intelligence, block chain and new layers of coding over undocumented legacy systems, I genuinely worry about the preconceptions that programmers, most of whom are highly educated men, are building into the little boxes that control our lives. Who is thinking about rural populations, women, disadvantaged students? It’s important that diverse people are part of defining how technology works in our lives. And, it’s not enough that diverse-impacted constituencies be consulted. They must be in the room, doing the work and participating in decision making with their whole selves because they see possibilities and challenges that others miss.
For example, many of the teachers and administrators at Learn4Life were teenage parents themselves. They invited students to bring their kids to school because they knew the babies wouldn’t be a distraction under the right conditions. Decision makers who hadn’t been teenage parents were skeptical and were proved wrong. Diverse perspectives are vital. We need our top minds leading STEAM.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
We have improved, but we can do a lot better. My generation had opportunities because our mothers fought for us. I had great female mentors as a young consultant at IBM. Now I see many more young women entering STEM fields than before because of several changes that are starting to take hold. First, the internet has made access to teaching yourself STEM easier, allowing young women to circumvent many of the educational barriers that still exist. Second, we are wising up to the fact that science needs to be an important part of the curriculum much earlier. What five-year-old girl isn’t thrilled with cause and effect? Third, we need to pay teachers more, especially elementary teachers with degrees in scientific fields. No one goes into education for the money; however, STEM fields are so lucrative that many would-be teachers feel a responsibility to their own family to earn as much as their education and training will allow. We need their training, passion for the subject and creativity in the classroom.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
You cannot have STEM without STEAM. Curiosity, creativity and discipline (all skills learned through the arts) all are critical to scientific discovery and advancement. In any scientific field, you need to imagine the future before you can create it. Students who learn science as just a list of procedures that add up to a correct answer are missing the whole point. The top scientists in the world and throughout history have been unconventional thinkers with keen imaginations often cultivated through music, improvisation or art.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
1. Design student-centric schools. Learning should be facilitated according to the needs of students. For example, why should the six core subjects (English, math, science, social studies, world language and art) be allotted the same amount of time for every student? I needed more time and one-on-one instruction in math, but writing was a breeze. The successes we’ve had at Learn4Life are due to our student-centric model. For example, when a student enrolls, we co-develop a personalized academic plan with them. Many have been out of school for 80+ days and don’t feel like they can be successful. We will start with a favorite subject to build confidence as they start to embrace learning and succeed.
2. Insist that the science of learning inform the educational process. Research shows that students learn more when they are not in a constant state of trauma. They cannot learn academic subjects unless we also teach them how to cope with crises, manage their emotions and gain resilience. One of our students was routinely abused by his father. That student could not sit with his back to the door because of the fear and anxiety it produced in him, but in his traditional school, there were no other seating options. He could not bear sitting in a classroom like that which made it impossible to learn. We need to address the issues students face outside of the classroom to help them be able to learn. The science of learning also applies in teaching reading. The average student enrolling in our schools is 17 years old and reading at a fifth or sixth grade level because they were never taught to read appropriately. The research shows that a combination of phonics and rich literature will help students make the highest gains, but too many schools ignore the science of reading.
3. When we encounter students facing great life challenges DO NOT lighten their load. Instead help them get stronger. This goes for social and emotional learning as well as academics. The truth is that life rarely gets easier so dumbing down the curriculum just ensures that kids will fail again. We need to provide the resources to work twice as hard to reach and teach students who have challenging lives, so they become strong enough to overcome their hardship. When they graduate high school, they need the tools to be resilient in face of new challenges that will come up in their lives. One of our students was far behind in credits when she enrolled. She was able to do double duty on rigorous curriculum to catch up, graduate on time and earn a scholarship to attend UCLA. If her teacher had reduced her academic load to make things easier, she wouldn’t have made it.
4. Triple our spending on professional development, including the time we allot for school staff to plan. Part of the reason why teaching is so exhausting is that there is so little time to think about and plan for what individual students need. Much more thought needs to go into figuring out how to reach each individual person and gathering the resources, tools and strategies to be successful on a personalized basis. Our teachers at Learn4Life spend time with each new student talking and outlining their short-term and long-term goals. Then, on a weekly basis, teachers meet with students and update their individual personalized academic plan to ensure success. Our teachers have an hour to themselves every day to plan. I wish it could be more.
5. Find a way to integrate internships into high school and pay to have them be a well-managed learning experience. I served as a U.S. Senate page during the first semester of my junior year of high school. I went to class from 6 a.m. to 8:15 a.m. every morning in the third floor of the Library of Congress, then ran errands from the floor of the Senate for the rest of the day and late most evenings. That was an education.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Realities are facts, not faults.” At Learn4Life, most of our students are either in a state of trauma or severely challenged by their lives outside of school. A trauma-informed approach helps the students deal with their current situation, and we do everything possible to remove the obstacles that are holding them back. Our attitude is that we have great students who may need to work or take care of a child. That’s a fact we address by working around their schedule so they can still attend school. If they are homeless or hungry, we help them find services and provide meals to ease the burden. And most importantly, we teach them life skills so they can develop resiliency that will help them cope with life’s ups and downs after they graduate. All of that is done without judgement — realities are just facts, not faults. Finding fault creates defensiveness that becomes a barrier to action. Deal with facts and move forward.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I am interested in meeting anyone who is willing to implement these crazy ideas and who will never give up on young people. We need all the help we can get! We have a successfully proven model that will help address the needs of the 4.5 million disengaged youth in the United States. With a reasonable amount of funding to open new centers, we can educate one million of the 4.5 million disengaged youth in America every year. Who can help me get there? I want to have breakfast with you. Who wants to teach formerly disengaged youth in a one-on-one supportive environment? I want to have breakfast with you. Who wants to go back to school and learn in an environment of respect, rigor and encouragement? I really want to have breakfast with you!