Sandra Liu Huang, CZI’s head of education in conversation with Monica Milligan, executive director of Gradient Learning. Photo courtesy of CZI.
Gradient Learning’s steadfast commitment to whole student development includes giving teachers new ways to understand and support their students’ growth and creating learning environments that set all students up for success.
Our key partner in this important work is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, who we collaborate with to build and deliver tools that integrate high-quality research, practice, and content—such as Summit Learning and Along—to help teachers connect with students and access whole student-aligned resources.
Recently, Gradient Learning’s newly appointed Executive Director, Monica Milligan, sat down with CZI’s Head of Education, Sandra Liu Huang, for a wide-ranging conversation. The two inspiring leaders discussed what led Milligan to pursue a career in education and how she sees Gradient Learning continuing to help educators unlock the potential of every student.
Sandra Liu Huang: You have a powerful personal story about the impact that one teacher can have on a student’s life. Can you share a little bit of that? How did those early experiences as a student shape your eventual professional path?
Monica Milligan: This work is personal for me because I know how one teacher can change the trajectory of a student’s life. I was an immigrant and an English language learner who was mostly ignored for the first couple of years in school. I was quiet and easy to ignore. But when my third-grade teacher recognized what I needed and got me support, that made all the difference for me and my family. My career has been focused on doing what I can to ensure that every student — especially those who may be underserved — has exactly what they need at the time that they need it. Because I know personally how much of a positive impact that a connection with a trusted adult can have on a student for the rest of their lives.
SLH: Like most of the team at Gradient Learning, you started your career in teaching ― what are some of the key takeaways or experiences from your time in the classroom that you still reflect on and draw from in your work today?
MM: I was a middle school math teacher in New Orleans, and teaching was definitely the most difficult as well as the most rewarding job I’ve had in my life. That experience led me to devote my career to making the work of educators easier so that they can spend their time doing what they are uniquely qualified to do — building strong connections with students and facilitating strong learning experiences. It’s led me to some exciting work within school systems — at both Chicago Public Schools and KIPP — as well as at educational nonprofits supporting schools, including TNTP and OneGoal Graduation.
SLH: Classrooms have evolved significantly over the past decade; the pandemic has accelerated the pace of change even more. When the Gradient team talks to teachers working in classrooms, what do they hear are the greatest challenges educators face amid this rapid change in school environments?
MM: As I’ve talked with my teachers and school leaders over the last few years, it’s clear that the pandemic is still impacting the profession in many different ways. Each school that we closely partner with has a unique set of needs. Not only is there learning loss, but there’s also a real collective trauma that our communities have faced in the years since then. What I love about our work is that we’re not just attending to the learning loss in terms of content knowledge. It’s really about serving the whole student and acknowledging that all of us are humans. In this post-pandemic era, it’s imperative that we teach valuable life skills such as resilience and self-direction to our students so they can lead fulfilled lives long after they graduate. It makes me proud to lead an organization that recognizes that an educator’s greatest role is to guide students to grow as whole people and find their place in the world.
SLH: You previously mentioned making the work of educators easier so they can focus on connecting with students and facilitating strong learning experiences. And you’ve described guiding them as they grow. Could you say more about why teacher-student connection is so important today?
MM: Teacher-student connections matter so much to me because every single student deserves and needs to have at least one adult at school who cares about them, who sees them, who thinks about their goals, their progress, and their journey. Because their journey is not just in one class or in one grade. Students need someone on their side throughout their academic career because it absolutely can change their lives, as I personally know so well. That’s why we highly encourage mentoring to be a part of a school’s whole student development. It’s also why I’ve been thrilled to see the meaningful impact that has been made through Along, our tool that helps build and maintain strong ties so students become more comfortable opening up and sharing their experiences.
“It’s really about serving the whole student and acknowledging that all of us are humans.”
SLH: What are some things in Gradient Learning’s work that you are most inspired by or excited about in the months ahead?
MM: This is an exciting and busy time for us at Gradient Learning, and we can’t wait to see the continued evolution of our program in the months ahead. We are steadfast in our commitment to provide our partner schools with a cohesive, easier-to-implement program that features best-in-class tools and increased support for whole-student instruction and engagement. It’s so important when you’re establishing and enhancing a partnership with a school that you come in from a posture of really listening and understanding what that particular school is going through. Throughout this year, we must really empathize and grasp what each community needs so we can be the very best partner that offers the very best support. I’m so excited to continue to build that trust and rapport with our schools in 2024 and beyond.
SLH: Thousands of students have benefited from Summit Learning’s school-wide approach to supporting the whole student, and the product has been constantly evolving over the past eight years to meet teachers’ needs better ― you have been close to that work. What would you say has been the most successful or impactful Summit Learning product evolution or feature in recent years?
MM: Our team of educators — many of whom are also parents — have really honed in on deeply understanding how students grow holistically and how to best serve them throughout their school journey. Our impact is seen every year when our schools graduate students who leave with an abundance of curiosity, purpose, and self-direction. We actually have a recent survey completed by Project Tomorrow in which 95 percent of school leaders said that Summit Learning has had a positive impact on their students.
SLH: CZI and Gradient have a longstanding and deep partnership. I, for one, am pretty excited about some of the shared work on the horizon for our two organizations and our respective teams; what about you?
MM: One of the absolute best parts about my role is being a part of and witnessing the consistent and inspiring collaboration between CZI and Gradient Learning. Our shared vision for reimagining education allows us to partner with educators from around the country to help us design and build tools that best fit their needs in the classroom. This teamwork ensures that educators will get what they want and that students will get what they need. I can’t stop smiling when I think about the possibilities and the positive impact that our two organizations can make on the future of education in the months and years to come. I am so excited about rolling up my sleeves alongside our passionate team of educators and continuing to partner with a unified goal of helping all students reach their true potential.