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Episode 11: Reading Partners with CEO Adeola Whitney

Adeola “Ola” Whitney brings over 20 years of educational leadership experience to the CEO role of Reading Partners. Before being named CEO, 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 IMentors program. Before joining IMentor, Ola served as Reading Partners, Chief Regional Operations Officer managing 14+ Executive Directors across the country. Ola also served as Executive Director of Playworks for the Greater Newark region. Ola has 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 family, traveling the world and creating memories. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nati Rodriguez [02:02] 
I’d love to start with what was your own educational experience growing up and what motivates you to do this work?  

Adeola Whitney [02:19] 
I am a first-generation Nigerian. I was born here in the States, but both of my parents were born in Nigeria and education has always been something that’s been really critically important to both of them. They’re not educators – my father was a journalist and my mom worked in retail. When I was very young and in elementary school, I went to a public school. It was an okay public school. When my family purchased a home right around the time that I was about to go to middle school, we moved into the city and I went to a public school. Unfortunately, the resources weren’t as great as the school that I had gone to before. The school looked a lot different and felt a lot different from my elementary experience. It was an inner-city part of Columbus, Ohio. I remember having extraordinary teachers who looked a lot like me. That was not the case at all in throughout school, both in elementary and middle school and even high school, just people who believed in me and in my potential and would tell me that regularly, not just my parents. My parents, anytime we were home, would buy us books and talk about the importance of reading. I was an avid reader as a kid. I think that also helped my experience in learning by the time I was in high school and even in college. 

Nati Rodriguez [03:44] 
What set you on the path to do this work in education, specifically as an adult?  

Adeola Whitney [03:49] 
Yeah, so there was actually an experience I had when I was just starting sixth grade. I went back to school shopping with my parents and I witnessed this harassment that was racially charged. I saw my father basically place himself in harm’s way to support another human who he had never met. Long story short, we were coming out of the mall and as we were walking to our car we could hear a woman screaming, a Black woman, very visibly pregnant and was thrown to the ground by two white mall security officers. They 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’s expecting a child, but even just because she’s a human and there’s no reason to be so violent with someone. He went back towards the wall and told us to go to the car and they called the police and they were filling all these racial epithets his way and her way. I think they were claiming she had stolen something. She hadn’t stolen anything. They let her up and also let my father go. He immediately started taking pictures of what was going on. The next day on the front page of the only black newspaper in Columbus, Ohio, was the scene of what happened in an article written by my father. He was the city editor of this newspaper at the time. After that, the Ohio chapter of the NAACP boycotted all of the JCPenny’s in our state that year.  

So how does that connect to education? How does it connect to social justice?  
That was clearly a move of social justice before I even knew what social justice was and it was a move of activism before I even knew what that was. My father saw this woman, did not know her, but saw injustice underway and wanted to do something about it, and so he did. I think that just taught me – you always speak up for people, you always pay things forward, you never know when you’re going to be in a compromising situation, And you want someone to advocate or speak on your behalf. That led me to doing a bunch of different volunteer opportunities and 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 – that so much that has happened in the space of public education in this country has put people that look like us in jeopardy. For young people, especially in economically-disadvantaged communities, the resources just aren’t necessarily as great as in more affluent areas, and therefore that impacts their education.  

More than anything, I learned a lot from my father and I just always knew that I wanted to do something in education. I think it was somewhat shaped by that experience and volunteer experiences that I had. I think of the work that we do at Reading Partners, and it is also at the crossroads. Yes, we are a literacy organization, but to not talk about educational inequities that exist in this country, is almost like denying folks from really understanding why we exist anyway – why an organization like ours and Jumpstart, Literacy Lab, Reading Corps and so many other great organizations, why we all need to exist.  

Nati Rodriguez [07:40]
Thank you for sharing that and for connecting that to Reading Partners and this organization that’s powered by volunteers. I assume a strong sense of social justice is why volunteers are part of Reading Partners. Why reading specifically, and not math or something else? 

Adeola Whitney [07:37] 
When we first existed, the founders at the time, were doing some volunteer work in Silicon Valley, specifically in some inner-city schools. They were volunteering to help read, they weren’t volunteering to do math or anything else. In conversations with principals, they saw how many students were struggling to read and they focused on reading. From my perspective, in order to learn anything, in order to learn more about social studies, in order to focus on STEM or STEAM, which I also think are really important, in order to do word problems, in order to do really any type of math or any other subject, you have to know how to read. We start in the first few years where kids are learning to read, but once about 3rd grade comes their reading to learn and everything that they do and every way that they’re learning in school is based on their ability to read – even the connection to social and emotional learning and their confidence, instilling belief in themselves and showering them with positive reinforcement, helping them believe that they could do anything. There’s also that tie in of social and emotional learning to learning. You can’t just teach a child how to read just for the sake of teach them how to read, it is a combination when someone can’t do something, it’s a lack of skill, will, or both. That’s why at Reading Partners, social-emotional learning is so critical. 

To answer your question from my vantage point, there are incredible math organizations out there, and I think they need to exist. Reading Partners and other literacy organizations absolutely need to exist because in this country right now, there are millions upon millions of elementary age children, who are not reading at grade level, by the time that they’re in 3rd or 4th grade. Those factors and that data are used to determine so many other things, so many other outcomes for them within their public education. That’s part of the reason why literacy and the pandemic has only exacerbated the challenges. For students, for example, who have been struggling to read at grade level pre-pandemic, are only struggling more and students who are doing better or above grade level in something like reading are only doing better. The gap is also widening, which is just more of the reason why we must do something.  

Nati Rodriguez [10:04] 
Thank you. For our Learner audience who isn’t familiar with Reading Partners can you describe the organization and talk about the model? 

Adeola Whitney [10:11] 
We are a national nonprofit; we operate in 12 cities across the country and we’ve been around for about 22 years. What we do is empower and support young people to learn to read, as young as kindergarten and up to about 4th grade and we do that by mobilizing community volunteers. My alma mater, Oberlin College, used to have this model that says, “Do you think one person can change the world? We do.” We do at Reading Partners, too. 

We think it’s through volunteers, that one-on-one connection. We train our volunteers and coach them on how to best support young readers, and again, I’m defining that as kindergartners through 4th grade. We partner mainly with elementary schools where the majority of the students receive free and reduced lunch. In our case, about 95% of the students we serve, as I said earlier, are Black and Brown students. [For] many of them English is not their first language so also helping and supporting them to both learn, to read in English as well as all of the other challenges that come along with that, given that many of them can read very well in their own native language. We recognized we could no longer go in school. Our program was in-person, it’s still in-person in some places now, but during the height of the pandemic, we were unable to be in-person like so many other organizations and so many other folks that do work to support young people. We had to have a virtual offering and that’s called Reading Partners Connects. Reading Partners Connects is our online curriculum. Essentially, we took everything we did in-person in a school building and just put it online. We still do trainings that way, but that has allowed for volunteers in one city, [and] tutors in another city. There are actually districts where we’re able to still support kids, even virtually in that way.  

Nati Rodriguez [12:06] 
Has going virtual expanded the reach? 

Adeola Whitney [12:11] 
I think like many organizations, nonprofits, youth development focused groups, during the pandemic, our enrollment has actually decreased. Much of that is related to absenteeism in schools. Also, schools had never gone through any of this before. This pandemic, this is not what principals got their certification and their degrees to become principals on. No one learned how to run a school during a pandemic. Teachers certainly did not learn how to teach a kindergartener virtually. Given their own challenges that they were dealing with in schools, sometimes our programs would start and operate later – that was also a factor. meaning we wouldn’t necessarily be able to start right at the beginning of the school year. We had to wait a couple of weeks or months just given other challenges that the school was dealing with.  

As we move forward, and as we climb out of this pandemic, while a lot of the academic outcomes and the challenges that students faced during the pandemic are going to still be with us and our communities for years to come, we recognize that being able to be in-person gives us more leverage to use either our virtual program or our in-person based on what the school wants. What we also noticed over the pandemic is that we now are at a place where there are many communities who recognize the challenges that many young people are facing right now with literacy. They want to do something about it, whether that is an after-school neighborhood community-based program, where they don’t teach kids how to read, but maybe they do homework help.  

They say, “Hey, we really need help with helping them learn to read, but we don’t have a curriculum.” Reading Partners has a curriculum. “How can we partner with you?” 

That is happening simultaneously, as we’re also trying to build back up our pre-pandemic enrollment numbers. Both are true at the same time. While the last two years perhaps served less students than we typically would in an average year, that is definitely going back up. In a year we’ll be serving close to 8 or 9,000 students at minimum.  

Nati Rodriguez [14:21] 
That’s great to hear. Yes, I think a lot of organizations are still in this transition period, especially when you’re partnering with school districts with fluctuating attendance. 

Nati Rodriguez [15:12] 
In terms of effectiveness, do you find in-person or virtual or some combination being more or less effective in terms of academic outcomes for the child?  

Adeola Whitney [15:22] 
It’s early on for us. We won a US Department of Education Innovation and Research grant for $8.8 million. That is to do a five-year study, randomized control trial that MDRC will be helping to lead from the research side on the effectiveness of Reading Partners Connects. It’s like we have this one curriculum that we’ve only been using for actually less than two years. We have our other in-person curriculum, which we’ve been using for 22 years where we’ve had a number of randomized controlled trials, including one done by MDRC, which shows its effectiveness. Is Reading Partners Connects, our virtual one, effective? It is. We do mid-year and end-of-year evaluations, and in the first year of our program, the 2020-2021 school year, what we saw in the results was that kids were making a very similar progress to the type of progress they were making in our program in-person. I think the hardest piece of it is the social-emotional learning.  

It’s really awesome when you get to give somebody a high five.  I’ve given virtual high-fives and it’s just a little harder to do. We’ve just been much more thoughtful about talking to a number of experts, like some of our program advisors who are folks in the field in higher ed that study literacy, but talking to many people, many supporters of ours on how to best support students’ social-emotional learning in a virtual way. We’ve developed these social-emotional learning lessons where we still read with the student at the beginning of the lesson, but the focus is much more on self-esteem or about different emotions that you experience as opposed to, this is the letter “A”, let’s say the sound that the letter “A” makes, now make a small word. It’s much different than that.  

So that has been helpful. I think in-person will always exist in-person, and I think we’ll also always exist virtually. I think that it’s a different offering. We have some schools that have said, “We want you Reading Partners back in the building.” You’ll be able to pull the kids from class during their session, but tutors will not be allowed back in the building. We’re in-person, but we’re still using Reading Partners Connects. In other places they’re like, “Students need the connection.” They need the in-person connection so as much as possible we want to be in-person.  

What our virtual program allows us to do though, is in places that we may never be able to go through direct service – that’s where we set up an office, we hire an executive director, they hire an entire team of people who are responsible for program, fundraising, recruitment of volunteers, recruitment of AmeriCorps members, and training of tutors and operations – what we’ve said is there are already some really great nonprofits that exist in some communities that we’re not in. If they want to partner with us and bring our training and technical assistance and specifically our curriculum to students, we can do it that way. I think that’s how we think about exponentially serving more kids. It’s not just what we do through direct service, it’s how we can partner with others. 

There are both some challenges to virtual, but there are also a lot of benefits. That’s why we’re continuing to pursue it because we see it as an opportunity to reach students that we would never be able to reach before, or in communities where they can’t afford to bring Reading Partners there, or there’s not a big foundation or corporation there that can provide seed funding for us to be sustainable. Even at our height, we reached 11,300 kids. That is a small drop in the bucket when you talk about the millions of children in this country who are struggling to read. We’re going to continue to do some of the work through direct service in the communities we’re in. We also want to partner with other people who believe in this mission and believe that young people learning to read is one of the biggest, most important education priorities that we have as a country.  

Nati Rodriguez [19:30] 
Switching gears to the volunteers, who are the volunteers and what is their experience [with] Reading Partners?  

Adeola Whitney [19:39] 
Our volunteers are high school students who are trying to get community service hours, high school students who grew up in very similar communities to the very communities we serve, college students, where we have partnerships with various institutions of higher ed and their work-study programs where they volunteer but then the school may pay them as part of a work-study type of internship. We have retirees, people who had kids 20 or 30 years ago, or more, and have retired from whatever they were doing professionally and are looking for something to do in their spare time. We have stay-at-home moms and corporations. We’re partnered with corporations such as Five Below who understand our mission and believe that some of their staff can be volunteering with us. It’s really widespread. There is a background check process for any and all of our volunteers. What’s really great is you can be as young as a teenager to volunteer with us, or as old as one can be in terms of how high it goes. It’s just anyone who knows how to read, believes in our mission, and really enjoys working with kids.  

Nati Rodriguez [20:54] 
There was big news recently with Reading Partners receiving 20 million from MacKenzie Scott. Can you talk about the impact that this funding will have and what it will be deployed for?  

Adeola Whitney [21:05] 
Absolutely. First of all, I’m sure I speak for every nonprofit leader out there, this is what executive directors, CEOs, folks running organizations wish for – a gift like this because it’s transformational. We’re approximately a $30 million organization so to receive a $20 million gift is just more amazing than I can put into words. Such a big part of our strategic plan is really thinking about how we exponentially serve more kids and how we make our technology better to be able to do that but also, how we make our in-person Reading Partners program better to deepen our reach in the communities that we’re already in.  

What’s been really important for us is that this gift is going to be used to really further our strategic plan, to be able to serve more and more students. If anything, what it allows is for us to accelerate so much of what we were planning to do, and that’s how we’re thinking about using it. First and foremost, to serve students. The last two years have also been really difficult for educators. I just read an article over the weekend about the toll that this time period has had on frontline folks like nurses, but also frontline folks like educators. People who are in schools, working with our students and who have experienced the pandemic in such a nuanced way that only an educator can describe. I bring that up because it’s tied to how we’re thinking about our future. Our program managers, our AmeriCorps members, all of our people at Reading Partners, our community engagement managers, all of the people who are on the frontline, either as AmeriCorps volunteers or AmeriCorps members – they’re the face of our program in the majority of our schools – or the people who manage them, program managers who support our programs across many different schools and manage our AmeriCorps members just to ensure that we’re delivering our program with efficacy and that our students are making progress.  

When I think about those stakeholders, I think their experience is probably very similar to a lot of teachers. It’s been tough. If we cannot serve more and more students and exponentially grow, if the very people who are on the frontline doing the work to coach tutors, to recruit tutors, to support them, to run our reading centers, if they’re not feeling great about the work or if they’re worn out – some of the investment is also going to what we can do to best invest in the people who are doing the work so that we can then support more students.  

We’re thinking a lot about just our infrastructure operationally; what do we need to do to make sure as a nonprofit we’re not putting ourselves at risk? What do we need to do to plan for the future? How are we thinking about our overall financial sustainability, but also just our operational efficacy and sustainability? What are the structures that we need to put in place now that will ultimately ensure that we can be here for a long time if there are clearly students to serve. If we somehow fix this literacy crisis in this country in the next decade, and we’ve put ourselves out of business, that’s a good thing. If that is not the case, we want to be able to exist for a long time to really be able to give the nuance support that we provide.  

Those are all of the things that we’re considering. Now, if you were to ask like what, like, no, tell me like the line item, like how much it’s going to what, I will tell you that what I have learned this year, after getting this gift, is it’s so exciting to celebrate a $20 million gift. It’s so much harder to figure out exactly the dollar for dollar, where this money will go. What we did was we came up with some guiding principles and I kind of described some of them to you that are also tied to our strategic plan. We came up with those principles and we’re ensuring that the funding is helping to support that. What we don’t want to do is look back, I don’t know, 5-10 years from now and say, “we got this huge, transformational gift what did it go to?”  and then we don’t have anything to show for it. So that’s how we’re thinking about it.  

Nati Rodriguez [25:26] 
You touched on this about supporting your frontline teams that are very much similar to teachers and given just your deep experience in education, both in the for-profit and nonprofit space – what are your thoughts on how we can best support and elevate the teaching profession to meet the needs of our students?  

Adeola Whitney [25:45] 
I think coaching, training, professional development are always important. Creating opportunities for anyone, whether they’re an educator or not, but to continue to learn and grow in their work is really critical, to allow for inclusivity and what is happening and how decisions are made, especially about the students that teachers and educators and program managers and AmeriCorps members are at the front line of serving, is really important. I would say in addition to that – how people are compensated, what are the benefits they receive – that’s important and just what’s their quality of life and their experience like working.  

I’ve heard about the teacher shortage in different communities across this country, and oftentimes who suffers most, in addition to the students, are the other educators. We’ve seen that same thing around AmeriCorps recruitment. That has been even harder than we’ve seen in previous years. If there are less AmeriCorps members that means the people who are on the ground are now doing more. What are we doing to ensure the staffing structure of the school, or a nonprofit, is done in a way that is sustainable.

Nati Rodriguez [27:16] 
At Learner, we’re thinking about how we get young adults excited about teaching. How do we increase the pipeline and how do we get more teachers of color in the classroom serving those students? Any thoughts there on how we just get kids excited? 

Adeola Whitney [27:28] 
Yeah. I think a couple things are true. I think it’s exposure. Let’s say, the goal is to get more black and brown men to become teachers. If the goal is to get more minority men, they have to see other minority men as teachers. Otherwise, they’re never going to think that they can be teachers. You’re right, it is exposure. It’s what you see and I think it’s your experience having great teachers. I think that’s really important and understanding what’s at stake in our country right now and the importance of education and the importance of our teachers. The more that we can create opportunities for young people to experience tutoring, or volunteering, or working with young people, or helping them understand the educational inequity gap that currently exists in this country, the more we inform and educate, I think that helps organizations and institutions that are focused on recruiting more teachers of color and that they’re given some type of incentive.  

I hear sometimes people talk about their struggle with recruiting folks from diverse backgrounds. I say, “If you keep going to the same place and you’re expecting a different result, do something different.” 

“How are you marketing to this community?” 

“How are you connecting to people who are already really tied into the community?” 

“How are you using faith-based institutions or clubs and Greek life?” 

“How are you utilizing all of that to recruit?” 

 I think those are just some of the things that I think about.  

Nati Rodriguez [29:03] 
What is your vision for public education?  

Adeola Whitney [29:07] 
I think my vision is probably similar to that which is my vision for Reading Partners – I believe we cannot go at this alone. I think far too often national nonprofits that are somewhat established, come into communities as if they are changing the face of the community in doing the work to the community, or for the community, not with the community. I think the same thing with the public education system. We have to do this work with our community. Family engagement is really important, understanding the community, and being able to actually recruit some leaders, instructional leaders, teachers, other volunteers who are from the community. What I would say is my vision is that we once and for all are able to close this gap.  

What is centered in public education are students, and that our tax dollars ultimately help kids reach their full potential and that everyone who’s in the school building believes that. People go into this work with an asset-based way of thinking; we’re not thinking about what our young people do not have, but rather all that they have. We’re not thinking about simply how hard the pandemic was. It was, but my goodness, how much resilience have children learned right during this pandemic?  

You’re actually not going to see anybody in-person. 

You’re not going to do play dates. 

You’re not going to play any sports. 

You’re not going to go to after-school activities. 

You’re going to just learn in front of this machine. Nope.  

You actually won’t be able to give your teacher a hug or a high five, and won’t be able to see your friends, but we expect you to learn how to read and do math and be on time.”  

That is tough. I’m just using that as an example of thinking about things from an asset-based way. I just think recognizing their brilliance and their potential and banding together with other nonprofits, teachers, school districts, community leaders – who believe in a child’s potential, who believe that a child’s outcomes in life should not be based on the community they grew up in, on their families’ educational attainment. It shouldn’t be based on any of that. It should be based on how much money their parents make or lack thereof. It should be based on them. It should be based on what they want to be, on their potential.  

My vision is that more schools and communities band together for that realization and that’s what public education ultimately becomes, and educators are paid well to do the work and they are supported, and they have the balance that they need to do the work, and that there’s a lot of self-care, that self-care is promoted, especially when things are difficult. That’s some of what I would say. I just think teachers and educators are some of our biggest assets, and I just want us to treat them as such. I think there’s still a lot for us to do as a country and just communities. 

Nati Rodriguez [32:33] 
What are you reading, watching, or listening to these days?  

Adeola Whitney [32:37] 
Yeah, so I’m looking over at my bookshelf right now. I have a ton of books that I like to swap out the books on my bookshelf for the things that I’m reading. I am reading Killers of the Flower Moon, which is about tribal nations by David Grann. I am reading The Measure of Our Lives, it’s Toni Morrison’s work, but it’s a compilation of a lot of her work all put together. It’s beautiful. I’m also reading Professional Troublemaker by Luvvie Ajayi Jones. I’m reading a lot of different things. In terms of what I’m watching, I’m not watching a lot of television right now, which is kind of unlike me. It’s really difficult to watch the news given just all that is happening right now in the world. I choose to read that instead of watching it on television. 

Nati Rodriguez [33:30] 
Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Learner audience?  

Adeola Whitney [33:34] 
The last two years have been hard on everybody for a variety of different reasons. We just talked about that experience for educators and for young people, but also for parents and caretakers of children. It’s been hard, we’ve all kind of been indoctrinated into becoming educators at home when some of us would not have chosen that as a profession. I would say I’m speaking to people who have kids, people who do not have children, but people who care about our country, and about its future and about making sure that we can instill in young people that anything is possible, that they can be whatever they want to be, who believe that every child should have an opportunity to dream and to be whatever they want to be and to reach their full potential, that there are organizations such as Reading Partners, where you can volunteer.  

If tutoring is not your thing, I’m sure there are other organizations. The plug that I would put in here is that if you just have an hour of your time, you have an hour once a week, and you’re interested in volunteering, we are in communities across this country and now have some opportunities to even be virtual for folks who are not in one of the 12 regions that we serve. My plug is volunteer. There are communities who need you and give an hour of your day or hour of your week. Reading Partners is an option, but there are so many other great options, too.