School’s Out, Cities Are in with Expanded Cities of Learning Initiative

June 23, 2015
By Natalie Orenstein

The municipal courthouse is not somewhere a teenager usually spends her summer (at least not by choice). But for Dallas high school students, it offers an engaging opportunity to take part in a mock trial and learn about politics and law.

Even after the final school bell rings in June, learning opportunities abound in most cities and communities. But kids and teens might not know about them, have access to them, or receive recognition for their efforts. Thanks to support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, four cities are turning into sprawling summer campuses and helping students navigate the offerings.

In the summer of 2015, Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C., double as Cities of Learning (COL). Young people can take self-directed journeys through any number of participating organizations, completing activities and receiving digital badges to recognize their achievements. An earlier iteration of the COL initiative debuted in Chicago in 2013, and since then other cities have joined in and fine-tuned the program. This year, the effort has been greatly expanded.

Each city sets up partnerships with local institutions and community organizations. In Dallas, for example, kids can intern at the mayor’s office, dissect owl pellets at the library, or program a virtual robot at RoboMind Academy. “Playlists” of activities allow participants to follow a themed track—fashion, say, or science.

A primary goal of the program, said Dallas organizer Margaret Black, is to chip away at the barriers low-income kids face in finding learning opportunities during the summer, often due to lack of transportation or digital tools.

“One way to work against those very invasive problems, especially in a spread-out city like Dallas, is to offer challenges that kids can do in their backyards,” said Black, director of business operations at Big Thought, the nonprofit “anchor organization” of Dallas COL. Sometimes the activities are literally in their backyard, as is the case with a series of nature challenges.

Pittsburgh, like Dallas, gave COL a test run last summer. This year the city is partnering with more than 30 community organizations—from makerspaces to cooking clubs—as well as with the mayor, the Carnegie Library, and the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ summer learning program. The idea is that participants will gravitate toward activities that speak to their personal interests and, with the help of mentors and organizations, learn how to link their passions to academic paths, career opportunities, and civic engagement.

“We’re interested in creating a more connected environment between their formal school life and things they’re doing outside of school,” said Dustin Stiver, program officer at the Sprout Fund, Pittsburgh’s anchor organization.

It is also the first time that badges will be thoroughly tested in a formal school environment, through the partnership with the public schools. Badges are acknowledgements of learning achievements and form a sort of digital resume accessible to employers and admissions officers. Recently, the Remake Learning Network, made up of schools, museums, libraries, and others interested in supporting education across the Pittsburgh region, convened a working group of formal and informal educators to determine core competencies that would serve as the foundation for developing badges.

“There isn’t a way currently to recognize all that learning that’s happening in the summer,” said Sprout Fund Executive Director Cathy Lewis Long. “One of the reasons we’re so excited is to layer badging into these tremendous opportunities in the community.”

Another major resource to come out of the COL initiative is the set of websites that list each city’s offerings.

“We are looking at this as a one-stop shop to list all learning experiences, be they badged or not,” Black said. “There’s huge value in coordinating a searchable database.”

Prospective participants can search by neighborhood, cost (many activities are free), age range, and topic. In Dallas, Big Thought made sure families could search and interact with the system via SMS, because many do not have computers.

The families themselves have opportunities to participate in COL; adult involvement is a key principle of Connected Learning, which is the guiding force behind the program. Each city has its own special spin, but part of COL’s project is to lay a foundation for a similar endeavor across the nation.

“There’s never been an infrastructure and a common language so it’s consistent across partners,” Black said.

Everyone can follow along with the adventure on Connected Learning TV, which is highlighting each COL throughout June. Take a virtual trip to Pittsburgh, or find out how Chicago educators are making the summer count for the city’s kids.

Photo/ Can Turkyilmaz, Dallas Kick-Off Event, Dallas Cities of Learning