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Finalists Selected in Multi-Million Dollar Chicago Whole Child Learning Acceleration and Wellness Initiative

Written by A Better Chicago on Jun 10, 2021

CHICAGO – As students across the city head into their final weeks of a school year rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, a local venture philanthropy fund focused on supporting Chicago youth from cradle to career today announced eight finalists as part of its multi-million-dollar initiative to identify and invest in Chicago’s most promising innovations to accelerate learning recovery and promote wellbeing in communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

The initiative, the Chicago Design Challenge, is led by A Better Chicago, a nonprofit that fights poverty by investing in ideas, programs, and leaders serving youth from low-income communities.

Each finalist will receive a planning grant to spend time over the summer to fully develop their initial innovative pilot programs with support from A Better Chicago and core partners at the University of Chicago Education Lab and the Chicago Public Education Fund. Following successful completion of the planning process, the grantees stand to receive much larger grants to execute their programs for the coming school year. Ultimately, A Better Chicago will collaborate closely with the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to identify opportunities for system-wide adoption of successful innovative programs.

“With the prolonged disruption to learning as well as the trauma of the pandemic, supporting Chicago students – especially our low-income and Black and Latinx students – will take new approaches and collaboration,” said Beth Swanson, CEO of A Better Chicago. “This first round of grants from the Chicago Design Challenge will help students process their trauma, create new mentoring models, and accelerate learning, all with innovative pilot programs that meet students where they are. We will measure the impact of the programs and work to scale up the most promising so that we can help all Chicago youth succeed.”

The following organizations will receive support:

  • Alternatives, Inc. will receive a planning grant to reimagine school-based supports around trauma and mental health to ensure young people have access to the resources they need after a year with limited support.
  • Chicago HOPES for Kids will receive a planning grant to grow its middle-school aged Literacy Learners program to include increased support to students in living in Chicago’s homeless shelters, with the goal of giving students skills and confidence to graduate high school.
  • Juvenile Protective Association will receive a planning grant to expand its Connect2Kids program that assists children from communities hit hardest by the pandemic to overcome obstacles from trauma and loss and improve their social-emotional well-being by helping teachers become protective factors for their students.
  • Leading Educators will receive a planning grant to address unfinished math learning with a pilot program to generate a model for implementing CPS’s new Skyline math curriculum, partnering with school, network, and external stakeholders to document learnings for systemic adoption.
  • LEAP Innovations will receive a planning grant to expand its Next Generation Learning Model that focuses on scaling student-centered learning, building a team of “learning guardians” around every student and expanding learning experiences for students beyond school to ensure students post-secondary and lifelong success.
  • Lion’s Pride Mentoring will receive a planning grant to develop a peer-to-peer mentoring model with a robust social emotional curriculum and trauma-informed approach that utilizes teachers within high schools to train and execute the program model.
  • Roosevelt University will receive a planning grant to create a Metropolitan Chicago Tutoring Corp to improve K-3 literacy and social and emotional learning skills through tutoring.
  • VOCEL (Viewing Our Children as Emerging Leaders) will receive a planning grant to launch an Early Educators for Thriving Children Fellowship for Pre-K/Primary teachers in CPS, including group-learning, individual school consultation, cross-cohort knowledge sharing, and supportive relationships.


“We received many impressive submissions and worked with our partners to gather input from community leaders, educators, parents, and students closest to this issue to inform our diligence as we worked to identify our slate of finalists,” said Kelly Jones, chief investment and strategy officer at A Better Chicago.All of our finalists are leading innovations that serve the whole child with a combination of educational and social-emotional supports that are more critical now than ever before. As we work with them through the design phase, we hope to equip organizations with the strategic tools to implement their programs with the maximum impact for students in need.”


The Chicago Design Challenge launched in February with initial funding of more than $6 million and a goal of raising at least $10 million, now has more than $7 million in the fund. The challenge is a powerful collaborative effort across sectors, with A Better Chicago spearheading the day-to-day work of sourcing, vetting, and funding grantee organizations. Investments are focused on high-impact innovations designed to accelerate learning recovery and holistically support students, particularly those from low-income, Black, and Latinx households.

“Upon successful completion of the design phase, we’re excited to give each of these finalists the largest possible multi-year grants to achieve their innovative visions, which is why we’re still fundraising for the Chicago Design Challenge,” said Becky Betts, chief marketing and external affairs officer at A Better Chicago. “There are so many great ideas out there and we want to give them their best chance of success as we all work to ensure our youth have what they need to thrive.”

In partnership with the City of Chicago and CPS, A Better Chicago has identified priority areas for funding and populations most urgently in need. These include serving students pre-kindergarten through high school, focusing on improving literacy and math skills, promoting high school success, and providing mental health services and trauma-informed care.

The Chicago Design Challenge is supported by a diverse group of donors, including Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin, the Crown Family Philanthropies, the Chicago Community Trust, the Chicago Education Equity COVID-19 Response Fund, the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation, the Adtalem Global Education Foundation, the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund, and the Chicago Bulls.

More information about the initiative is available at

About A Better Chicago

A Better Chicago is fighting poverty by leveraging the collective power of Chicagoans who want to make our city more equitable for everyone. We raise funds through public donations and direct those resources to support low-income, underserved communities. We find high-potential, high-impact programs and leaders that serve young people from cradle to career. Then, we invest both dollars and strategic support to empower organizations to grow and make an even greater impact. We know that giving our young people the tools they need to thrive—steady access to essential needs, holistic social-emotional supports, a world-class education, a family-sustaining wage—can lead to breaking the cycle of poverty for this generation and generations to come.


Since 2010, we have raised more than $55 million, invested in dozens of nonprofit organizations and supported over 100 capacity-building projects—ranging from strategic planning to leadership development—to strengthen the organizational capacity of our grantees. In total, our portfolio serves over 37,000 youth annually in the Chicago area. Learn more at

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