- Karen Coker-Duke
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What do academically advanced youth and children with learning disabilities need to thrive academically? How can educators and school districts equitably meet the needs of these students?
Virginia Roach, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, unpacked these questions and explored how her career and personal experiences have shaped her approach to equity at CTY and beyond on a recent episode of Toby Usnik's The Caring Economy podcast. The podcast welcomes leaders from across industries to share career insights and tell listeners how they are stewarding their businesses though challenges.
Growing up, Roach said, she heard stories about educational inequities from her mother, who volunteered at an overcrowded cognitive disability center where individuals faced abuse and neglect.
"She would talk about these haunting experiences she had, and I would say to her 'How could you stay there? How could you witness this?'" she said. "And her response was, 'When I was with residents, and I was able to take them outside and away from the living conditions, they were happier and they were safe, and that was important.'"
Her mother's perspective inspired Roach to pursue a career in which she could advocate for change in educational systems and environments. Some of that work, she said, included legislative advocacy.
"As I cared for the needs of students across states, I bumped up against state legislators," she said. "I would ask them to include students with disabilities in legislation, for them to hold teachers and school districts accountable for what they were doing." Though she faced resistance, Roach continued to advocate for change not just in legislation, but from educators. She firmly believes that when teachers know how to differentiate instruction, they can meet the needs of all children in the classroom.
"We really try to help them diversify their skill sets and hone their skills," she said.
Diversification in the classroom is central to meeting the needs of advanced learners, which are her focus at CTY. Roach discussed why it is paramount to give advanced learners the opportunity to explore above-grade-level subject matter and to provide them with access to educators dedicated to the holistic development of their students. Programs like those offered at CTY ignite a student's passion for learning, provide social-emotional and disability support, and serve as an opportunity to build a community with young people who share their interests, Roach said.
"It's all about human beings finding their place, their purpose, and their belonging," Roach said. "And for me, that's what equity is."