Education nonprofit aims to help youngsters attain grade-level skills

Laura Kohn, executive director of the San Diego-based Education Synergy Alliance, is helping make positive change in the field of education. Through ESA, composed of educators, business leaders, community members and innovators, Kohn is facilitating a goal to make lasting change, not a short-term fix.

The recently formed nonprofit has a mission “to help every child succeed in school, college, career and life.” It is engaged with two ends of the educational spectrum: early education — from preschool to third grade — and high school education, said Kohn.

ESA supports the P-3 initiative, which aims to ensure that all students in San Diego are reading and doing math at grade level by the end of third grade.

“If students are not performing at grade level in third grade, their likelihood of dropping out of high school is roughly doubled,” said Kohn.

Data gathered from the most recent testing of San Diego County students show that only 52 percent were reading at grade level by the end of third grade, said Kohn.

In the face of this statistic, P-3’s goal is to ensure that every child has high-quality learning opportunities from birth to third grade that aim to close the achievement gap before it opens and lay a strong foundation for future learning.

“We are promoting the habits of mind and learning that students will draw on and build on going forward,” Kohn explained.

To reach this goal, ESA has gathered countywide partners in a “P-3 salon” that meets monthly to build a plan to mobilize school districts and communities to make a commitment to quality education for preschoolers through third grade.

An action plan will be completed early this year. It includes data sharing, paying more attention to the transitions of students between grade levels, quality professional development for teachers, special attention to English language learners, and promoting better family engagement.

The salon includes the County Office of Education, local universities and several nonprofit funding partners.

“One topic that the salon is talking about is the fact that students can come to school speaking a language other than English, and that this is a gift that they come to us with,” said Kohn. “We’d like to help these students preserve this gift while acquiring English so that they are bi-literate.”

At the other end of the education spectrum, through “Linked Learning,” ESA is working with partners on the idea of building career-streamed pathways in high school, which prepares students for careers and college.

Instead of going from class to class and switching topics, in a Linked Learning pathway, teachers coordinate lessons by using a career theme that embraces cross-discipline subjects through project-based learning.

Students might have a project that uses science concepts paired with skills learned in engineering class, and then when writing up their findings, they make use of literacy skills.

“This approach integrates several subjects, which helps students see how things are linked together and relevant to the real world,” said Kohn.

It also enables students to keep on track to graduation and opens up a range of options for their future.

“Students who graduate with a plan and the skills they need to get a degree or certificate will become fantastic workers in our region’s economy, and they will be able to support a family,” Kohn stated.

The idea of real-world relevance is reinforced by students’ exposure to employers within their communities.

“Employers may come into the classroom and work with students, share information, give guidance on career choices and also have students go out of the classrooms into work places,” Kohn explained.

ESA’s goals evolved from changes made in national policies for the implementation of common core standards and a new funding approach that California Gov. Jerry Brown successfully championed. These changes allow districts “to set more local priorities and to be more innovative with the way that they are implementing things in schools,” said Kohn, a 20-year leader in education with two children attending schools in the San Dieguito Union High School District.

The funding change also means that ESA may engage with business, government, nonprofits and university communities to “work hand-in-hand with schools to capitalize on this opportunity,” said Kohn. “It’s a very exciting time in education.”

To find out more about Education Synergy Alliance, visit