The School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) at the University of San Diego has received a $1.5 million grant from San Diego Foundation to develop and launch the Black InGenius Initiative – a college access and early literacy program for Black students across San Diego County.
SOLES is committed to academic excellence, innovation, equity and inclusion. Starting this fall, 60 rising sixth graders will be selected for its BiGI initiative every year. With continued fundraising, the goal is to have 420 students in the program by 2030.
“For San Diego, like so many other American cities, systemic racism – both explicit and structural – targeting African Americans has deeply impacted generational upward mobility within our Black community,” said Mark Stuart, president and CEO of San Diego Foundation. “This new education initiative will create systemic changes in the way Black students are educated in San Diego.”
Students in the program will get specialized and focused academic support delivered by SOLES students and USD faculty trained in neurodivergent teaching. Neurodivergency is the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in different ways and because of that, there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning or behaving.
For eligible students who complete seven uninterrupted years of participation in BiGI and are accepted to USD, the university will meet 100% of the financial needs of the student with a personalized financial assistance package, according to Kimberly White-Smith, Dean of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at USD.
White-Smith helped develop the initiative, working closely with San Diego Foundation Vice President Chief Impact and Partnerships Officer Pamela Gray Payton.
BiGI was born when Payton and White-Smith and challenged themselves “to use our radical imagination to solve a pervasive problem that has disproportionately affected the academic success of Black students in San Diego County and across the nation,” Payton said.
White-Smith said that regional school districts “are making great strides,” but while many minority students are progressing successfully through the education system, “African American students are not… there is still a great disparity.”
She also said “there are very real institutional baked-in obstacles that we really need to work through in education that disproportionately negatively impact Black students in school.”
“Culling practices from educational neuroscience, neurodiversity, multisensory structured literacy, and trauma-informed practices, we embrace an asset-based approach that allows us to close the opportunity gap for Black children in San Diego and realize their genius,” White-Smith said.
Payton said that Black students continue to experience an opportunity gap when it comes to equitable access to the resources and support needed for success in school and life.
The BiGI initiative is part of the San Diego Foundation’s Black Community Investment Fund (BCIF), which prioritizes and invests in community-led, innovative efforts that increase racial equity and generational wealth for Black San Diegans.
“At SDF, our overarching hope for our work is to make San Diego County a better, stronger and more equitable region where every San Diegan can thrive, prosper and feel like they belong,” Payton said. “We hope that the Black InGenius Initiative can help close that gap for our local students while providing our region’s teachers with training in neurodivergent teaching.”
White-Smith has more than 25 years of urban schooling and educator development experience, fostering academic justice for Black, Indigenous, Queer, Latinx, and neurodivergent students through enhanced learning environments, policies and practices.
“Dr. White-Smith is a forward thinker with extensive experience in neurodiversity (and) I am beyond excited to work with her and the USD team on the BiGI initiative,” Payton said. “The long and short-term impact BiGI will have on students, their families, and educators is beyond our wildest dreams.”
White-Smith said partnering with the San Diego Foundation and the BCIF marks “a big milestone for the region” and that she was looking forward to leading “this important and groundbreaking work to engage the brains, hearts, and minds of Black children, families, teachers and school leaders.”
As a part of the initiative, USD will also create a teaching and learning center for San Diego educators to train them on how to support the needs of diverse learners.
BiGI will be modeled after a 31-year-old program at the University of Southern California, the Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which supports more than 1,000 Los Angeles area children in college access programs and early literacy programs each year.
San Diego Foundation
HEADQUARTERS: Liberty Station, Point Loma
BUSINESS: Community foundation
REVENUE: $164M in FY 2022
SOCIAL IMPACT: In 2021, San Diego Foundation released its Strategic Plan, which includes advancing racial and social justice, fostering equity of opportunity, building resilient communities and delivering world-class philanthropy.
NOTABLE: For 48 years, San Diego Foundation and its donors have granted more than $1.4 billion to support nonprofit organizations strengthening our community.