The Ennis William Cosby Foundation Provides
New Beginnings for Students
“Passionate” is more than a word to Carolyn Olivier, who runs the 11-year- old Cosby Foundation, a teacher training program for student scholars committed to carrying on the work of Ennis Cosby, the son of Bill and Camille Cosby, who was tragically killed in an accident in California over a decade ago, but who had been himself a child with learning difficulties who became an ardent, “passionate” teacher of children with LD (Learning Differences). “He was such a positive, optimistic, passionate person,” Olivier says. He wrote beautifully—a New York Times editorial, “Teaching from the Heart” attracted a lot of attention when it appeared several years ago—and recalling his dedication, always makes her feel kind of “spiritual” about their common cause: supporting teacher training programs that honor the values and skills by which he himself learned. “Ennis knew what it felt like to be left out as a student.” And he reveled in what he achieved when he took charge of his life.
Specifically, Olivier cites three main components in the Cosby Scholars program: an extended supervised tutorial practicum (two days a week, from early fall through May); a course on language development as central to learning; and learning how to use, not just do, diagnosis and assessment. There is still debate about the value of tutoring, she notes, and is frankly “stunned and surprised” by those who downplay its importance, saying that it is a “crutch.” But from a student perspective a well-run tutorial is always an “opportunity to learn.” Youngsters will not spend time with “crutches.” Learning—whether academic or athletic—has always involved tutoring, mentoring. And if only one tutee presents a teacher with a puzzle to solve, learning “in a wonderful way” has taken place—for both the student and the Cosby Scholar, who gets feedback for the next time. Olivier points to mentors in her own life who made a difference when she studied for her Masters at Harvard and then interned at the Learning Disorder Center of Children’s Hospital in Boston, names familiar to many in the LD field: Dr. Charles Drake, for whom she did testing; Dr. Jeanne Chall, author of Learning to Read: The Great Debate; and Dr. Martha Bridge Denckla, who convinced her and demonstrated that “children are born to learn.”
In New York the Cosby Scholars Program is headed by Dr. Joanna Uhry, Professor of Education at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. Students are full-time teachers in high needs schools, “some of the toughest” in the city, Olivier says. Since the Cosby Foundation Scholars Program was initiated, more than 20,000 at-risk for reading children have been taught and tutored by Cosby Scholars in over 100 city schools. In a field with a typically high attrition rate, Cosby Scholars have an enviably high retention rate. Yes, some scholars may express discouragement at first, but when they see what children can do when they are given power and are engaged, they are “amazed” at what can be accomplished.
Future Foundation work for Olivier includes, she says, not only continuing to write RFPs for the Foundation but to ensure that a school works “systematically,” for “multiplicative effect”—having teachers, parents, administrators plan together for “a coherent environment.” She is also exploring “blended programs,” those that will incorporate online and face-to-face teacher training. And she is also interested in bridging the language gap that often exists between professional research findings and the general public. The challenge is great, but the spirit of those chosen as Cosby Scholars undeniable. Olivier notes that more information about the Foundation and its work can be found at a website called “Hello Friend,” so named because Ennis Cosby called everyone that, whether he knew someone for a few minutes or several years. He had a dream. He went on to Morehouse and then Teachers College at Columbia, and never lost the joy of learning. Not infrequently she would get a call: “Miz O, I got to talk to you…” And they did.#