PSU/GSE Program Administrator Beth Unverzagt got a surprise phone call in her car on the way home from work recently. The White House called to tell her she was being honored by the Obama Administration as a Champion of Change. “Who did you say this was?” said Unverzagt. “It was really surreal,” she said. “They called while I was driving, but when I got back to the office and saw the email, I realized it was authentic.”
Unverzagt is the director of OregonASK, a component of the Oregon Center for Career Development in Childhood Care and Education (OCCD) in the Graduate School of Education. OregonASK is a collaboration of 65 public and private organizations and community members concerned with out-of-school services for children in Oregon. OregonASK is funded through the C.S. Mott Foundation and the Oregon Early Learning Division (ELD).
Unverzagt and eight others from across the country were honored at the White House on Friday, February 26, for the Champions of Change Summer Opportunity Award. These individuals were selected by the White House for their leadership in investing in, operating, or advocating for high-quality summer learning, meals, job opportunities, and violence prevention for children. They recognize that the summer “opportunity gap” for K–12 students contributes to later gaps in achievement, employment, and college and career success, particularly for low-income students. For example, by fifth grade, low-income children without summer learning opportunities are already two years behind their peers.
Gina Warner from the National AfterSchool Association (NAA) nominated Unverzagt, and Serena Stoudamire Wesley, Gov. Kate Brown’s director of equity and community engagement in the state education office, traveled with her to the event. Stoudamire works closely with Unverzagt and OregonASK on statewide programs.
For 10 years, Unverzagt has led OregonASK. She is a leading policy expert and works to inform stakeholders and policymakers around issues of child care, recreation, education, nutrition, and development. OregonASK’s Summer Learning, Summer Library, Summer Lunch program operates at 30 sites around Oregon and focuses on high-need children reading below grade level. Last year, she testified before the 2015 Oregon Legislature to support a bill (House Bill 2650) that if passed would create funding for summer learning programs at up to 140 underperforming schools in Oregon.
Unverzagt’s whirlwind trip to the US Capitol included a guided tour of the White House and attendance at several events with 230 people specifically chosen by White House staff for their work in summer and out-of-school programs. Also in attendance were representatives from industry, workforce development, city governments, and national organizations like NAA that are all working in various capacities to bridge the summer opportunity gap.
Several of the Obama administration’s top advisors, including Acting Secretary of Education John King, were on hand to congratulate the group and provide important affirmation and networking opportunities. Unverzagt met Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack who has a deep interest in ending childhood hunger. Vilsack helped pass and implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, enabling the USDA to help combat child hunger and obesity by making the most significant improvements to school meals in 30 years.
Unverzagt has a long history of education advocacy in Oregon. Her experience includes five years with the SMART Reading program, and employment at the Willamette Education Service District. In 1991, she helped launch a nonreligious K–5 private school and served as an administrator and on their board.
“We are all building systems and partnerships that then work with programs across our state,” said Unverzagt. “Giving structure and process to systems building is critically important. We’ve seen a lot of opportunity arise around science, technology, engineering and math. [Oregon is] really giving a place and space for informal education like it’s never happened before, so that has been really a wonderful process in our state for the last four years.”
The morning portion of the Champions of Change event was streamed live and is available on the White House YouTube channel.
READ MORE about summer learning loss statistics.