Scientific studies show that without a safe learning environment, children struggle to thrive in their schoolwork. Hill Learning Center, based in Durham, NC, is a long-time partner of Oak’s Learning Differences program. This is a school program that supports nearly 800 young people with learning difficulties each year. Its goal is to “transform students with learning differences into confident and independent learners”.
Due to the direct nature of its work with children, the Hill Learning Center has always been aware and informed of the importance of implementing child protection measures. Additionally, because a child protection policy was already in place in this tight-knit community, Hill staff felt that protection was generally taken care of. According to school principal Bryan Brander, “Hill is a small organization and knows the students’ families well. There was a pre-existing idea that this dynamic and the presence of so many adults to supervise made people feel secure”.
Nonetheless, the Center refused to settle for “good enough” and pledged to uphold the highest standards of child protection. They understand that child protection is not just about preventing child abuse, but also about keeping children safe more generally. For example, helping to build a protective framework or system into daily school activities can help prevent bullying, putting the safety and protection of children first.
That’s why Hill embarked on a capacity-building mission in November 2019 to further improve its child protection measures, giving its students their best chance at thriving. By working with Darkness to Light, the Oak Foundation’s child protection partner, Hill solved her blind spots and built on her existing practices. One of its priorities was to ensure that the protection policies put in place minimize the opportunities for violence of any kind for all children. This involved implementing prevention policies and safeguarding practices, including installing convex mirrors in stairwells, engaging in best practices during one-on-one tutoring sessions, normalizing regular visits from others staff in classrooms and the reform of visiting procedures, to name a few.
The level of involvement from teachers, parents and senior management all determines the success of initiatives like these. According to Hill staff, one of the most crucial developments has been a culture shift around this difficult subject. Indeed, Hill has succeeded in reducing the stigma surrounding child sexual abuse, by addressing a “not so fun topic” in an “effective and non-punitive way”, according to Bryan Brander, director of student programs at Hill. “Staff and volunteers within the organization have organic conversations about child safety and protection and how they can incorporate what they have learned,” he says.
The power of partnerships
An outside perspective helped the Hill Learning Center see where it could improve and grow in the practice of protection. With support from Darkness to Light, the team was able to identify areas of opportunity where existing policies could be improved and new ones implemented.
“Having an audit done by someone outside of the organization was helpful in seeing the gaps and getting an outside opinion on things that can still be improved,” said Michelle Orvis, chief of staff. “Some of the procedures were on Hill’s mind before anyway, but Darkness to Light’s involvement and help accelerated and focused the work.” Darkness to Light also hosted a joint session between Hill and Eye to Eye, another Oak Foundation grantee partner, to further discuss safeguarding best practices for educational environments.
Hill Learning Center has made great strides and demonstrated enduring commitment in its year-long transformation of safeguarding practices. According to a Darkness to Light report, “Hill Learning Center was extremely committed to the project, communicating with the Darkness to Light team, and adopting minimum standards.” To ensure these changes are sustained, Hill staff continue to have conversations around the organization and with its senior leadership.
“We are constantly giving her attention in developing new policies and continuing conversations across the organization, including senior management,” says Michelle Orvis. “Now new initiatives and programs are reviewed for compliance with safeguard standards.”
Hill also continues to attend Darkness to Light webinars and follow his resources. “Hill considers child protection to be a top priority that deserves time and space to do the trainings, but also time to process,” says Bryan Brander. “The priority is to serve the children.”
Oak is proud to be part of the Hill Learning Center’s efforts to promote child safety in its work. You can read more about Oak’s approach to child protection on our website and in our Child Protection Policy. If your organization is an Oak grantee partner and would like to receive child protection assistance, please contact your program manager.