Capstone Project partners with United to Learn, serves local schools

Elisabeth Siegel

 Every year, each grade completes a community service project. For the senior class, that means completing the Senior Capstone Project, a chance to serve a single organization in the community and showcase everything they have learned about service. Its purpose is to make a lasting impact on the Dallas community, encourage communication, maintain the value of service and enhance teamwork. The Class of 2023 chose to partner with the nonprofit organization United to Learn, whose mission is “changing lives by transforming the relationship between schools and community” to close opportunity gaps across 50 Dallas Independent School District elementary schools and raise awareness of inequity in education.

U2L’s vision is all about developing purposeful leaders through two avenues: student achievement based on participation at elementary schools and leadership development through partnerships with businesses, high schools, faith-based organizations and engaged individuals. Their initiatives aim to follow four pillars: social-emotional learning, learning environment, literacy and community activation.

“Our schools need support and love, and our teachers need to know that they’re appreciated and taken care of by our community,” Sarah Burr Bogaert, U2L Director of Community Activation, said. “Our students need to feel that support and be able to have not only aspirational learning environments but the aspirational volunteers that are working alongside them, to help expose them to new things in the world and to be able to take larger steps. And then also to know how important education is.”

U2L matches its community partners with local elementary schools. At ESD, seniors are serving Stephen C. Foster Elementary School and F.P. Caillet Elementary School. The purpose is for the schools to communicate the needs that their budget doesn’t cover or their kids’ needs, such as winter coats, shoes, food or other necessities.

“Our vision for having the independent school partners, specifically ESD, is to create an open and honest conversation with their partner campuses,” Bogaert said. “Everything United to Learn is a listen-first model. We want to hear directly from schools because not every school is the same… I was so honored that ESD seniors had chosen us to participate with because, to me, [it takes] such a caring heart to say, ‘Hey, this is our community, and here’s how we can take care of each other.’ It’s truly a reciprocal relationship.”

The students of ESD are the ones who are going to foster and push this relationship forward.

Sarah Burr Bogaert

Another aspect of the Senior Capstone Project is having impact-style classes to work alongside the partner schools. For example, students who take Spanish classes have helped tutor students at Foster Elementary for years.

“We would teach them English, but we were also learning Spanish, so the benefit was mutual,” senior Grace Exall, a Foster Elementary tutor, said. “I think they’re a great partner and I’m glad that we can work with an organization that our school has had experience with.”

Last month, the seniors donated supplies for a Foster Elementary “Care Closet” in order to ensure wraparound support for all the families and students at the school. The collected items included mouthwash, sheets, soap and more.

“We should realize the privilege we have to even be able to donate,” senior and Community Service Council Co-President Bridget Wang said. “Some people are not as fortunate as us to have [supplies] needed to just live in everyday life. It is important for us to give them the resources that we already have and spread holiday cheer.”

Upcoming activities include teacher appreciation bags and other resource drives. Seniors will also participate in the winter and spring Community Campus Days, events where volunteers transform and revitalize learning spaces by doing projects such as planting gardens or painting murals.

“We’re so excited about the partnership with ESD and I’m excited to see where it can go and how it can grow,” Bogaert said. “I do believe that the students of ESD are the ones who are going to foster and push this relationship forward. Creating their own relationships with students at Foster or Caillet is where they’re going to be able to feel and see that benefit.”

The senior leaders of the Community Service Council are working with Senior Capstone Coordinator Laura Gomez to implement their activity ideas. Gomez has seen the project evolve from building houses with Habitat for Humanity into 2014 and into the year-long tradition it is now.

“This is my first time working with United to Learn, but I’ve seen so many great things happen with our Spanish classes and some of our other school organizations that have worked with them,” Gomez said. “I went and did their fall festival a few weeks ago, and it was awesome. The thing that I love the most is that they are literally just a few miles away from our campus. It’s great to serve within our community, right here.”

It is clear that the U2L community gets the job done. According to last year’s volunteer report, they had over 1,000 volunteers on campuses. During Covid-19, one of the most challenging periods for students and educators, U2L avoided over 50 percent of the loss experienced across other Dallas ISD Title I schools. The 27 established U2L schools achieved literacy growth of 39 percent over the five years before the pandemic.

“I really do think year after year, it’s gonna get stronger and stronger and people are gonna find more and more creative ways to get involved,” Bogaert said. “Just looking at that data within and of itself, it’s very moving to know how much the community is really getting out into our schools and being motivated.”

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