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Washtenaw United: 'Educate Youth' putting Ypsilanti-area kids on the path to academic and life success

Gail Wolkoff, executive director of Educate Youth.
Educate Youth
Gail Wolkoff, executive director of Educate Youth.


Gail is a teacher educator and a former administrator who resigned from classroom teaching and school administration in May 2010 to pursue her desire to develop an educational program that connects youth with the world and to promote a love of learning. Through-out her 35 year career, she has practiced anti-raciest and positive teaching where teaching and learning are interconnected.

In Fall 2011, Gail started Dedicated to Make a Change, L3C (DTMAC). In January 2017, Educate Youth 501c3 was started with the mission of increasing the high school graduation rate in the 48197 – 48198 zip code and creating a post-high school plan, which each of our students. All of the youth programs and classes were moved from DTMAC to Educate Youth.

Gail has a rich and varied history as an educator. At the Evergreen State College, Olympia Wa, Gail studied Earth Science and Social Work. She earned her Masters of Arts in Teaching in 1985 from the University of Pittsburgh.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU with another in our ongoing series of conversations that explore equity and opportunity in Washtenaw County. I'm David Fair, and this is Washtenaw United. Today, the focus is on efforts to increase positive academic incomes, particularly in underfunded areas. In this case, it's the children in the 48197 and 48198 zip codes. Educate Youth is a program serving kids in the Ypsilanti area with the aim of improving high school graduation rates. The nonprofit was founded by its current executive director and our guest, Gail Wolkoff. And thank you so much for the time today, Gail.

Gail Wolkoff: You are welcome. Thank you for looking at this issue and the amazing students that come to us.

David Fair: Well, in talking about the students that you have, I want to talk about how you got to where you are. You spent a great deal of time as a teacher and school administrator. What of that experience taught you about the inequities in public education?

Gail Wolkoff: Oh, this is a good one. First, to be perfectly transparent. I worked in public education, but my last 17 years were working at the Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, and I was a sixth grade teacher. And I also taught middle school. I taught some high school wellness programs. And I was also the Service Learning director, and that's when I left Greenhills in 2011. I was the Service Learning Director. I have always been raised with education is the most important thing in anybody's lives. Over my years of teaching, I have observed and witnessed that not everybody has an equal opportunity.

David Fair: And as you pointed out, maybe I was underestimating what is going on in some of the nonpublic schools as well. Is there a comparison to be made between what is offered in private schools and in public schools?

Gail Wolkoff: There is. There is. I mean, at Greenhills, the ratio is 15 to 1, student-wise. Parents make a choice to send their kids to that school.

David Fair: Mm hmm.

Gail Wolkoff: So, there is the intentionality of education, and the class size is smaller. But what really pushed me over into looking at equity was when Katrina hit and the levees were broken. I personally believe that that's what happened. We started taking, through Greenhills, we started doing various learning trips down to New Orleans and working in the Lower Ninth Ward. At that time I got to see just the difference in education and the power of the difference in education and the abilities to have just the, you know, reading skills or something as simple as a cell phone to be able to research how to build a porch versus not having a school. And the intentionality that down there were to keeping the schools not there versus schools that people were intentionally sending their children to. So, it was this huge discrepancy that I got to see. But, in both places, people had hope, and people took the hope and moved to envisioning a future for themselves. No matter where you are, you want to learn, you need hope, and you need to have a vision for where you're going to the next step.

David Fair: Our Washtenaw United conversation continues with Gail Wolkoff on 89 one WEMU. She is executive director and founder of the Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Educate Youth. Now, as you just said, your program is for any student that wants to be here and show up every day. There are life circumstances, as you pointed out, for all too many that hinder that ability. For some, that level of hope that you mentioned is so low, there may not seem to be a point to showing up at all. So, how do you reach the kids and make them invest in themselves and their education?

Gail Wolkoff: The students reach us 80% of the time. The students find us from word-of-mouth. They walk through our doors, they knock on the door, and they say they want to be part of our after-school program or our summer program. And these are students from sixth grade to 10th grade or 11th grade saying, "I want something different in my life," like academically. And then, once they have that opportunity and they see what it looks like to be engaged and have somebody sit with them and tutor them and care about them, people can start growing and feeling like, "I'm seen. I have a future. Somebody cares about me. Somebody is going to sit and do homework with me." And then the next day, ask if you turned in your homework. And then, two weeks later say, "How'd you do on that test?" We also use students who were older to mentor the younger students. So, the students that become 11th graders, that in a community where there's not a high graduation rate, that are 11th graders, they mentor students that are in sixth, seventh and eighth graders. So, the middle schoolers get to see what it looks like to be in high school on credit load and as role models.

David Fair: Every kid that comes to you has a different story. Now, we can identify systemic issues and broad community issues that impact academic participation. How does Educate Youth individualize the attention with the understanding that you never know what a youngster may be going through?

Gail Wolkoff: We listen, we watch, we hear what's going on in the community. The place where the building that we're located is called the Clubhouse. It's a safer place. The students come in, and they feel free for whatever the amount of time that they're here. They feel safer to be themselves, to be their genuine selves. And, with that, they talk. They know that people are going to be here to listen to them. They know that people are going to be here to just sit with them no matter what's going on. We have a number of students that are displaced from homes. They have someplace where they can keep this stuff safe. We have washing machines. We have showers. What community violence is happening--we address that and we talk about it. And we have a whole process to work with the students. And, on the other side of that, we have the healing parts. We do arts, we do music, we do outings, we do field trips. You know, they do sports. So, they have an opportunity to engage all of their brain.

David Fair: Washtenaw United, once again, continues on 89 one WEMU. We're talking with Educate Youth founder and executive director Gail Wolkoff. When they find the support necessary and they find community within this program, they have the successes and the desire for successes and the support for successes. Is it true your program boasts a 100% high school graduation rate for those who would otherwise drop out?

Gail Wolkoff: I don't know if they'll drop out, but yes. We do boast a 100% graduation rate. Once again, we have students there from nine different schools because the requirement is you live in the 798, unless you're presently displaced from housing. And then, you know, because we provide transportation to all of the students to and from the facility. But we do. And, we now have a dozen college graduates. So, they're moving slowly down the pike of education and moving onwards.

David Fair: You know, when the Ypsilanti schools consolidated with the Willow Run schools, the idea was it would save money and create, therefore, greater opportunity to improve education. The state of Michigan and the Legislature, at that time, had an opportunity to wipe away the debt of both districts and give greater opportunity at student investment. That did not happen, and the consolidated Ypsilanti Community Schools has continued to struggle with finances ever since. In your opinion, how much of equity in education can be solved legislatively and budgetarily?

Gail Wolkoff: I think it can be solved significantly if they were to remove the budget because, you know, in 2011, when the consolidation happened, two schools were brought together with a huge debt. And so, that's looming over everybody's heads. So, moving forward, it's hard to move forward. If the state wants to role model or say that education is important to all youth living in the state of Michigan, then they need to role model that. They need to make it so students have that opportunity and the best opportunity that they can possibly have, which means that--

David Fair: Go ahead.

Gail Wolkoff: I'm sorry. I said, which means removing the debt.

David Fair: So, looking longer term, where, in your opinion, does the focus need to come in creating an educational environment that allows for the greater success that you are seeing among the students in Educate Youth, among all students?

Gail Wolkoff: We have a lot--we being educators and community members, as I like to say, those of us with our high school degrees. We have students that have experienced COVID, and they have students that have experienced being in lockdown and working virtually. You know, the concept and the verbiage that people are using is getting kids, getting students back. But we're not going to get students back. We have to accept that our students are where they are and the trauma that we've all walked with that one, until the mindset comes that these students are two years behind. But they aren't behind. Students are where they are. And we have to accept that. That's where we need to start. You know, investment is more than just money. We need to get the community involved. You know, there's nonprofits, there's communities, there's volunteers. We are at a point that all hands need to be on deck.

David Fair: Thank you so much for sharing today.

Gail Wolkoff: You're welcome. Thank you very much.

David Fair: That is Gail Wolkoff. She is founder and executive director of the Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Educate Youth. If you'd like more information on the program and our discussion today, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County. We bring it to you every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Educate Youth


From November 2021 - June 2022, Educate Youth has been a recipient of United Way of Washtenaw County’s Opportunity Fund— a resource for local organizations and groups whose efforts address poverty, racism, and trauma: root causes of systemic oppression that hold opportunity at bay for all people in Washtenaw County.

Educate Youth has received a $25,000 award for the hiring of a math tutor to increase academic success for youth in eastern Washtenaw County.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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