What happens when you combine DNA from an educator and a builder, a passion for making schools more responsive to their students, a keen appreciation for asking the right questions and building a story from the resulting data? Well, you get Jen Wilka leading YouthTruth, a national nonprofit housed with the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) that elevates the voices of students to help build healthier school systems.
Jen is passionate about making education systems more responsive to the needs and aspirations of the students they serve. A native Vermonter, Jen is now in the San Francisco Bay Area where she leads a team of 11 creating survey products, gathering student perceptions, and sharing insights to help K12 educators accelerate improvements in their schools and classrooms.
Jen’s first job after graduating from Williams College with a degree in English was at the Boston Foundation supporting two program officers working in education, youth development, criminal and juvenile justice. In this role, she observed the connections between education, youth development and juvenile justice. Knowing she needed to strengthen her analytical and quantitative skills, she earned an MPP from Harvard’s Kennedy School where she wrote an award-winning thesis on rethinking zero-tolerance school discipline policies.
Seeking a job that would allow her to focus both on data and education, she joined YouthTruth, a project of CEP, as the fifth employee and its first general manager. Jen recruited school districts to participate and helped articulate the value of student feedback. She helped educators and managers understand the data gathered and then act on the feedback.
In 2015 Jen was promoted to Executive Director, and in her nine-year tenure has doubled the size of the staff. With funding support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, YouthTruth has surveyed more than 1.5 million students and 200,000 family and staff members in collaboration with educators and their partners across the country. Its fee-for-service model generates about 2/3 of its revenue with an annual budget of $2.7M.
She shared that school culture is really hard – consistently the lowest-rated aspect of students’ school experience – and that student perceptions tend to be more critical as students get older. Not surprisingly bullying, school discipline, emotional/mental health are topics about which educators can learn a great deal by listening to young people. YouthTruth has highlighted student experiences of these and other critical topics in its Learning from Student Voice series. What has surprised Jen is how savvy young people are in consuming and understanding data.
When I asked Jen what one thing she could change, she answered, “I’d want to provide adequate support to help students with the obstacles they face outside of school. I’d want each student to have at least one adult with whom they have a trusted relationship.” She explained that relationships and school culture must be changed so learning can flourish. We need to recognize that learning does not exist in a vacuum but within a larger ecosystem. To help students succeed in school and in life, we need to prioritize elements such as engaging students, developing relationships and a sense of belonging, and building a strong school culture to support students. That’s an idea we can support 100%