Published March 22, 2021 at 3:51pm.
Story and photos by Jan Osborn.
Abby Williams grew up in the small Texas community of Seguin in a strong Catholic Mexican family—the responsibility to care for the people around her was planted deep. “We were a very matriarchal family. I was raised by my mom and her six sisters. This was a group of women who were very poor, but they were very proud. They took care of one another and taught their children to do the same.”
This was not just specific to her family, but her entire community. Abby remembers coming home in the evening, and there might be a family sitting on their stoop, just waiting to see what her mom was cooking for dinner. Her mom always managed to stretch that meal to be able to serve at least three other people. It was later in life that Abby realized other people in her community were taking care of them, either by paying for dance lessons, or ensuring that she could be a part of whatever was going on in the schools. Her teachers went above and beyond to make sure that Abby and her siblings had what they needed. “There was this sense that collectively, we would survive and thrive. And we had a responsibility to each other,” Abby says.
With her own school community experience at the forefront of her mind, in 2007, Abby and her husband, Todd, helped found the Uplift Williams Preparatory School, a K-12 free tuition public charter school operated by Uplift Education that educates 1,200 primarily low-income children in northwest Dallas. For many years Abby remained very actively involved with the school, serving on the Uplift Education Board of Trustees. She also participated in the Fellows Program of Leadership ISD and served on its Board of Directors. Through these experiences, Abby realized a desire to be more actively involved in creating opportunities for students like herself who attended public school. In 2013, her passion to assume a shared responsibility to take care of others led to the founding of United to Learn. Her vision was to help students grow, achieve and become purposeful leaders by transforming the relationship between schools and the community.
Abby and her United to Learn team now work with Dallas ISD elementary schools across the city from as far north as Carrolton and as far south as Wilmer Hutchins. Abby says, “United to Learn has one vision and that’s ensuring the long-term potential for every student. We are laser-focused on accelerating student achievement and developing purposeful leaders. We think about our programming as stepping in where public dollars stop to close needed resource gaps.” United to Learn now partners with 47 elementary schools across the city, making measurable differences for thousands of Dallas ISD students and their families.
United to Learn started very much as a grassroots volunteer initiative and their team always chooses their campuses by invitation of the school. “We would never go into a school without them wanting us to be there and we serve as their partner,” Abby says. “In determining our schools of focus, we had many conversations with Dallas ISD principals, executive directors, and management about what a thriving campus with strong community engagement would look like. We understand that letting the community into the school will require time from a teacher, librarian, or principal and we want to honor that space that they may or may not have for outside engagement. But this reciprocal relationship is important to build a more informed community ready to advocate for our public schools.”
“Why are outcomes so different for students who live a mile and a half from each other, or go to school, a mile and a half from each other? That is really where the concept began for United to Learn,” Abby says. “We understand that 90% of students go to public schools. This is the future of our city.” For United to Learn, the majority of their work can be divided into three buckets: teacher training, learning tools, and volunteer/tutoring initiatives. Through these resources United to Learn is building learning environments that are safe, nurturing and inspiring, places that allow them to dream and be challenged to be the best they can be.
When COVID-19 appeared in Dallas last spring, the public schools were hit hard and learning loss became central to the conversation among educators. “There were incremental challenges as 90% of our students are living in poverty,” Abby says. “During the summer, we found that many teachers wanted to stay connected with their students, and we found an opportunity to step in the gap to help teachers stay connected. We provided lots of supplies, both for teachers and students alike. We set up at-home classrooms for teachers providing tripods, or a camera, or better headphones so that they could deliver remote instruction and stay connected to their students.”
Also adding to the complications is February’s winter storm. Eight of the 47 United to Learn campuses sustained damage. Beyond the school facility damage, children’s homes went without power, causing more trauma for students and educators to endure. United to Learn worked directly with the city to distribute over 10,000 cases of water and served over 1,200 meals. “We look to the school to identify particular needs, and we will fill them,” Abby says. “We always try as quickly as we can to pivot back to sustaining learning so that we are always looking forward to our long-term goals.”
United to Learn is proud to say that its programs work despite challenging circumstances. Their partner schools are making substantial academic gains with reading achievement outpacing Dallas ISD, county, and statewide growth averages. “We know that third-grade reading is the highest indicator of a child’s long-term potential, Abby says. “A child who’s reading on grade level in third grade is three times more likely to go to college. We stay very focused there and believe what the data is telling us as we collaborate with schools.”
Abby reflects back to one event in particular that impacted her passion for United to Learn. “I can remember sitting on the floor the night before all the students who had been impacted by the tornado would arrive at Loos Field House. Three different campuses had to move to this old arena, and we somehow had to figure out how they were going to have three schools in the same building with roughly 400 students per school. Sitting on the floor with a couple of principals and teachers at about eight o’clock in the evening, we were finishing up lanyards for every child so they would be ready for the next morning. As I sat and looked around the arena, I realized that just 12 hours earlier, it was a blank canvas. Because of the partnership of 350 United to Learn volunteers, now it looked like a school! There were carpet squares appropriately lined up and spaced out. There were thinking maps and word walls that high school students had written out. There was inspirational messaging lining the hallways. District leaders trusted our high school and community volunteers because for years we have been true partners.”
United to Learn relies on over 30 community partners (private schools, organizations, and businesses) who have committed to ongoing partnerships with individual elementary schools as well as high school students who share their own passion for learning. “Amazing volunteers provide talent and time which is so important. We work with high school leaders who act as weekly tutors and spend a tremendous amount of time on campus improvement projects. In times of crisis like the tornado, COVID, and winter storm, they are the first ones that we call if they haven’t already called us. During COVID they took to virtual platforms and created a YouTube channel with over 100 read alouds. So, while schools were trying to get digital and virtual tutoring up and running, our teenagers were developing reading resources and special skills videos on playing the violin or juggling a soccer ball.”
One of United to Learn’s key events is Community Campus Day, happening on March 27, which brings community volunteers into schools to transform learning spaces. “We have been working with the schools for months to gather their needs, do site visits to understand what will have the most impact and can be safely executed,” Abby says. “These transformative projects include revitalizing gardens, painting murals, creating mindfulness spaces, and stenciling games on blacktops and sidewalks. We invite everyone to come out and see the difference that can be made in just a day!”
These meaningful projects truly affect the day-to-day experiences of students and teachers. Teacher stress is at alarming levels and social-emotional supports are critical. United to Learn is helping not only students but the entire school campus. Their team is dedicated to serving as an inspiring example of people overcoming barriers to provide spaces that help teachers and students find light in these times–the light they need to learn and thrive despite the challenges in their path. To get involved with United to Learn’s Community Campus Day, click here, or to learn about more long-term volunteer opportunities for yourself or your organization, click here.