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Perspective | Safety first: How Hill Learning Center made child safeguarding a priority

Scientific studies show that without a safe learning environment, children struggle to thrive in their schoolwork. Hill Learning Center, based in Durham, North Carolina, is a longstanding partner of Oak’s Learning Differences Programme. It is a school programme that supports nearly 800 young people with learning differences per year. Its aim is to “transform students with learning differences into confident, independent learners.”

Due to the direct nature of its work with children, the Hill Learning Center has always been conscious of and informed about the importance of implementing child safeguarding measures. In addition, as there was an existing child protection policy already in place in this tight-knit community, Hill staff considered safeguarding to be generally taken care of. According to Bryan Brander, head of school, “Hill is a small organisation and knows families of students well. There was a pre-existing idea that this dynamic and the presence of so many adults to supervise made it feel safe”.

Nevertheless, the Center refused to settle for ‘good enough’ and committed itself to upholding the highest standards of child safeguarding. They understand that safeguarding children is not just about preventing child abuse, but it’s also about keeping children safe more generally. For example, helping to build a safeguarding framework or system into school day-to-day activities can help prevent bullying, putting the safety and protection of children first.

That is why Hill embarked on a capacity-building mission in November 2019 to enhance its child safeguarding measures even more, giving its students their best chance to flourish. By working with Darkness to Light, Oak Foundation’s child-safeguarding partner, Hill addressed its blind spots and built on its existing practices. One of its priorities was to ensure that the safeguarding policies put in place minimise opportunities for violence of any kind for all children. This involved enacting prevention policies and safeguarding practices, including installing convex mirrors in stairwells, committing to good practice in one-on-one tutoring sessions, normalising regular pop-ins from other members of staff to classrooms, and reforming visitor procedures, to name a few.

The level of participation of teachers, parents, and senior leadership all determine the success of initiatives such as these. According to Hill’s staff, one of the most crucial developments was a culture change around this difficult topic. Indeed, Hill was successful in the reduction of stigma around sexual child abuse, addressing a “not so fun topic” in an “effective and non-punitive way”, according to Bryan Brander, the director of student programmes at Hill. “Staff and volunteers within the organisation are organically having conversations around child safety and protection and how they can integrate what they’ve learned,” he says.

The power of partnerships

An outside perspective helped Hill Learning Center see where it could improve and grow in safeguarding practice. With the support of Darkness to Light, the team was able to identify areas of opportunity where existing policies could be enhanced, and new ones implemented.

“Having an audit done by someone outside of the organisation was helpful to see the gaps and get an outside opinion on things that can be improved even further,” Michelle Orvis, chief of staff, said. “Some of the procedures were on Hill’s mind before anyways, but the involvement and help from Darkness to Light accelerated and focused the work.” Darkness to Light also facilitated a joint session between Hill and Eye to Eye, another Oak Foundation grantee partner, to further discuss the best safeguarding practices for educational environments.  

Moving forward

Hill Learning Center made great progress and demonstrated long-lasting commitment in its year-long transformation of safeguarding practices. According to a report by Darkness to Light, “Hill Learning Center was extremely engaged in the project, communication with Darkness to Light’s team, and adoption of minimum standards.” To ensure these changes are maintained, Hill staff continues have conversations around the organisation and with its senior leadership.

“We are constantly giving it attention in the development of new policies and continuing the conversations across the organisation, including senior leadership,” Michelle Orvis says. “Now, new initiatives and programmes are put through the lens of if they hit safeguarding standards.”

Hill also continues to attend Darkness to Light’s webinars and keep up with its resources. “Hill sees child safeguarding is a top priority that deserves time and space to do the trainings but also have time to process,” Bryan Brander says. “The priority is to serve children.”

Oak is proud to be part of Hill Learning Center’s efforts to promote children’s safety in its work. You can find out more about Oak’s approach to child safeguarding on our website and in our  Child Safeguarding Policy. If your organisation is an Oak grantee partner and interested in receiving child safeguarding support, please get in touch with your programme officer.   

Oak Foundation

Oak Foundation is comprised of a group of philanthropic organizations based in various countries around the world. The foundation has 11 programs, through which it has made more than 5,440 grants to organizations around the world. Its six main programs are: environment, prevent child sexual abuse, housing and homelessness, international human rights, issues affecting women, and learning differences.