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Leading Together Toward Healthy Learning

Oct 24, 2021

This opinion piece by Mark David Milliron, Ph.D., Suzanne Elise Walsh, J.D., and Richard Rhodes, Ph.D., was originally published here in


Whether it’s preschool, grade school, high school, or higher education, there is not a privileged parent on the planet that is not careful about ensuring that their child is entering a healthy learning environment. Moreover, they are often willing to pay a lot of money to ensure it. And healthy does not mean easy. It does, however, mean a situation where a student can rise and thrive; a place where their academic, physical, psychological, and social selves can be better formed and effectively developed. 

It is painful to note that for far too many low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, and returning students entering institutions committed to access, their experience feels far from healthy. It’s often Darwinian. By Darwinian we do not mean in an academic survival of the fittest sense. What access institution leaders and student-success champions have learned over the last decade or more is that students are more often weeded out because of basic needs and life-happening challenges, such as housing insecurity, food insecurity, textbook costs, transportation costs, family dynamics, work responsibilities, sense of belonging, and mindset challenges. 

While academic issues do play a key part, they are so tightly tied together with these other elements, it’s hard to argue that Maslow does not trump Bloom.

Committed educators, policymakers, and leading student voices have called for change as a result. Exciting work has been undertaken and policies championed by the Hunt Institute , the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, Achieving the Dream, the University Innovation Alliance, and a host of other foundations, associations, and community organizations. We wholeheartedly support their work and offer here a focused extension and integration concept that we think has the potential to drive important conversations and shape needed change as well: Healthy Learning

It is our contention that access institutions across K-12 and higher education need to commit to braiding related initiatives together to make our learning environments healthier. Moreover, this braiding process and the healthy-learning frame itself can help start vital dialogues and shape strategic policy and practice around curricula, learning models, institutional finance, facilities, educational ecosystem partnerships, and more.

Recognizing the importance of building robust communities of practice that provide the greatest positive impact through deep and sustained work across the education spectrum, Western Governors University’s (WGU) Teachers College is catalyzing this work by supporting the creation of a virtual Center for Healthy Learning.

The goal is to create a center of gravity for pulling energy and expertise together around the needs of students and educators as it relates to five primary critical healthy-learning focus areas that are key drivers of student academic, professional, and personal success. While we fully realize this list may expand, we are beginning our work with this set. We believe these five pillars are essential for supporting successful, equitable, and thriving environments of healthy learning. While each of these are powerful concepts alone, it is through the collective strength of these pillars that we will see the most stabilizing, supportive, and positive impact on healthy learning environments.

• Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

• Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)

• Character Education

• Mental Health

• Basic Needs

To begin this work, we will bring together Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), community colleges, access-focused universities, and public-school districts committed to this work. The founding partners in this work will have demonstrated success in at least one of the five pillars that comprise the Center, and each has strong leadership dedicated to advancing this work. 

Going forward, The Center for Healthy Learning and her member institutions will strive to catalyze research, reflection, policy, and practice in these five areas to help ensure that more students in access institutions can flourish in their education and as a result, in their lives.

With the support of the Trellis Foundation, the founding group will hold an initial convening in February 2022, to share programmatic strategy, enabling policy frameworks, key learnings, and questions for further exploration and research in each of the five focus areas. We will produce a synthesis document based on the convening and follow-on discovery. This synthesis document will include recommendations for next steps in the work. From this foundation, we will map out a crawl, walk, run plan to scale the center, build assets, catalyze continued learning, and invite more institutions into this dynamic coalition.

We believe that as this work progresses, the Center will provide institutional leaders, policy makers, and front-line educators with the tools, techniques, policies, and practices that they need to effectively inform and better integrate their healthy-learning-related innovations and help ensure their students can flourish on their education journeys. At the core of these efforts is our theory of change: by bringing together and better braiding related initiatives, healthy learning environments can be intentionally designed, cultivated, and championed in a way that can help (1) access learning environments be more attractive to and inspiring for increasingly diverse students; (2) improve student success outcomes; and (3) help close attainment gaps.

Through this work, we hope to bring together an array of deeply committed and well-informed teachers, leaders, administrators that can model and teach these pillars together, advocating for healthy learning at their institutions and beyond. Most important, through our catalytic conversations and concentrated work, we aspire to move K-12 and higher education in the United States toward a less “Darwinian” feel, to something more equitable, particularly for low-income, diverse, and first-generation students in institutions committed to access and success. Indeed, if we have the privilege of serving these striving students, they should have the power of choosing healthier learning environments. They too should have access to an educational environment where they can rise and thrive, a place where their academic, physical, psychological, and social selves can be better formed and effectively developed. It seems not only healthy, but also fair.


Mark David Milliron, Ph.D. (Twitter: @markmilliron), is Senior Vice President and Executive Dean of Western Governors University’s Teachers College. Suzanne Walsh, J.D. (Twitter: @BennettPres_SEW) is President of Bennett College. Richard Rhodes, Ph.D. is Chancellor of Austin Community College (Twitter: @accdistrict).

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