Published March 23, 2023
Billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott recently made a $10 million gift to the nonprofit organization, The Literacy Lab, where University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education alumna Heather Jenkins, PhD ’11, serves as chief executive officer.
The Literacy Lab serves children from age 3 through third grade by partnering with school districts to help close the literacy gap by embedding full-time, rigorously trained tutors in early childhood centers and elementary schools.
Jenkins leads the organization in taking steps to fulfill its mission of providing impactful literacy instruction to thousands of students through evidence-based programs. The organization also strives to improve student outcomes by diversifying the educator pipeline and advancing equity in all its partner communities.
“We are grateful and humbled at Ms. Scott’s generosity. This organization has worked tirelessly over the past 13 years to help as many students as possible achieve grade-level literacy targets,” Jenkins said in a press release. “With this gift, we’re going to be able to work more strategically and with a long-term vision in place.”
Scott employs a “no strings attached” approach to giving, allowing nonprofits to maintain control over how to deploy the gifted funds. “Her philosophy of giving is tied to looking for organizations that are very much committed to equity and inclusion with a focus on our allies and communities—particularly communities of color,” said Jenkins.
In her proposal to Scott, Jenkins explained that The Literacy Lab needed to expand its data and human resources staffing to improve internal processes and practices, and ultimately amplify the organization’s impact. “We were using data but not in the way that I really know we can as an organization—I need people to do that,” she said. “We need to be culturally responsive as an organization. We serve 95% of students of color, and we need to make sure we have the data band analyses to best serve these particular students.”
Shortly after presenting this information, she was notified that The Literacy Lab would receive funding.
A graduate of GSE’s social foundations PhD program (now the educational culture, policy and society PhD program), Jenkins felt confident that she understood the needs of The Literacy Lab as a result of the skills she gained while enrolled in the doctoral program.
Through dynamic classroom discussions and rigorous coursework, State University of New York Distinguished Professor Lois Weis made a lasting impact on Jenkins—and that impression was mutual.
“As chief executive officer of The Literacy Lab, Heather Jenkins pursues incredibly important work. Not only was she a stellar PhD student who produced a tremendous dissertation, but she subsequently worked hard to actualize her short- and long-term vision of the meaning of evidence-based research in the world of largely underrepresented minoritized students. She stands as great testimony to the practicality of a rigorous research-based PhD program and the ways in which PhD graduates of such programs can exert short- and long-term impact on individuals’ lives,” said Weis.
Throughout Jenkins’ time at GSE, Weis also extended valuable opportunities to her outside of the classroom—like the chance to serve as an editorial assistant for the American Educational Research Journal, where Weis was editor.
“I learned so much about research and writing about the field of sociology of education, and thinking about the data telling the story as opposed to the story leading you to choose the data. That is something that I have taken with me everywhere,” Jenkins said. “I will say: ‘The data is going to tell me what I do from here, and that data is going to say what the priorities are. The data is going to say what the direction should be.’”
Jenkins reports that she has used this knowledge in every organization she’s been a part of— including The Literacy Lab, where she is currently working on developing and executing strategic plans.
“A lot of this first phase is really being sorted, but there’s going to be a lot of exciting things because of the Mackenzie Scott gift and my tireless commitment to using data to charter our path forward,” she said.