20% Project

Putting the 20% of students, families, employees and/or communities who have been the most marginalized at the core of innovative, cross-functional solutions.

There are all of these programs: PBIS, Restorative Justice, RTI, Trauma-informed. No one is helping you think about how to integrate all of these pieces into a holistic approach that is also unique to the individual school and its context. We can’t just layer on another program. (The 20% Project) is invaluable in helping us figure out how they all work together  in a way that is student-focused and enables schools to achieve their goals for kids.” 

— Marcia Aaron, Executive Director of KIPP SoCal

Schools — and the systems in which they operate — are consistently failing 20% of their most vulnerable students. These “Students who Systems Fail the Most” (SSFMs) have special needs, are court-involved, live well below the poverty level and/or face unthinkable barriers to success. Statistically, they are likely to be students of color.  Too often they are labeled “special populations” and further marginalized out of classrooms and into separate and unequal programs.

Instead of making fundamental changes to the system itself, schools and systems implement siloed solutions that treat students as the problem to be fixed.  But “these students” — a term frequently used to stereotype them — are not the problem. The problem is that systems are consistently failing the 20% of students that need support the most.

At The 20% Project, we believe that if we put the needs of SSFMs at the core of everything we do, we will get not only get radically better results for those students, we will also make the changes necessary for all students to reach a higher level of achievement.

We know from research what it takes to serve all students well. Excellent, high-achieving, high-poverty schools do four things well. Over the past decade, there has been tremendous progress helping schools systems improve on (1) instruction, (2) talent, and (3) operations, but there is a critical “fourth leg of the stool” that is too often underdeveloped or deprioritized.

This missing piece: building purposeful, anti-bias cultures and practices that support healthy identity development, deep relationships, student and family ownership over goals, growth in social and emotional skills, and developmentally appropriate responses to conflicts and incidents.  It is good for all students — and essential to ensure SSFMs thrive.

Today, the field is riddled with research and programmatic solutions such as “trauma-informed education,” “restorative justice” and “anti-bias training” that focus organizations on component inputs without helping schools and their bosses look at the systemic issues that need to change to achieve better equity outcomes. All of these are strong pieces of the solution but not the whole picture.

What’s missing is a holistic approach to building the capacity of systems to serve SSFMs by making large-scale changes to adult mindsets and cultures, policies and practices, and training and capacity building.


We engage with clients for 13-24 months, a timeframe that allows us to truly build relationships and make the deep, fundamental system shifts to catalyze long-term change. We are about teaching systems, schools, and their leaders how to fish—not fishing for them. Our process has three components.

Throughout, we are helping systems make six fundamental shifts: (1) from assuming results for the 20% should be a separate, non-urgent to putting their needs at the core of systems design. (2) from ignoring the underlying racism that created the 20% to confronting individual biases and systemic oppression, (3) from trying to change things one teacher or school at a time to a system-wide approach, (4) from admiring the challenges to serving marginalized students to building capacity at every level, (5) from separate and unequal, special “programs” for the 20%  to helping them thrive alongside their peers, and (6) from taking advantage of the fact that many families in the 20% lack political access to putting their progress at the forefront.