Jen Wilka

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%


  1. How did you get your name?
    My parents just liked the name.
  2. What did you want to be when you grew up?
    An author/illustrator or a lawyer.
  3. What do you want to be now?
    What I am. I want to dedicate my career to improving schools and communities, and ensuring that the needs and aspirations of those directly impacted are valued and reflected in the process. I’m grateful to be able to do that through my work at YouthTruth now.
  4. If you could have a mulligan, what would you redo?
    I would travel more, and I would write down more of the wonderful things my kids say as they’re developing their language and imagination.
  5. What are you reading?
    Llama Llama Red Pajama.
  6. If you had the opportunity to live anywhere outside of America, where would you establish your home?
    Outside of the United States, I would probably choose to live in Central or South America. It would be a tough choice but Bolivia is near the top of my list. My husband and I had the amazing opportunity to live in Ecuador for a year in 2008-09, and visited Bolivia while working with local schools. I would love to go back and spend more time there.
  7. What is the biggest challenge ahead of you?
    Helping keep student voices and perspectives top of mind as we navigate the largest disruption in education our generation has ever lived through, and remembering that we as adults never lived through this as students.
  8. Which living person do you most admire?
    Michelle Obama.
  9. What is your greatest extravagance?
    Quiet time alone in nature.
  10. Which superpower would you most like to have?
  11. You’re invited to a state dinner at the White House and cannot take your spouse/significant other. Who is your date?
    My brother.
  12. Assuming you had the talent, with what musical group/artist living or dead would you most like to perform?
    The Supremes and/or The Beatles.