Reimagining Education through Summer Learning Partnerships

Group meeting in the South Bronx

NYC School Chancellor Dennis Walcott joined community partners, school leaders, and students for the kickoff of Summer Quest at P.S. 211 in the South Bronx

As our students head back to school, we are reflecting on initiatives we saw this summer that can invigorate student engagement and learning year round. As part of Together for Tomorrow –our effort to strengthen partnerships among schools, families, and communities — we visited summer learning initiatives in the South Bronx, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Brenda Girton-Mitchell and I led discussions in these communities to share promising practices and to provide feedback to shape the U.S. Department of Education’s community and family engagement efforts.

These discussions also extended work the Department began earlier this year, along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, on Reimagining Education. Each place we visited is home to a Hive Learning Network — a collective of organizations, made possible through MacArthur Foundation support, where young people can pursue a diversity of learning experiences in their community. The summer initiatives we explored were anchored by strong collaboration among schools, families, and community-based organizations (CBOs).

In the South Bronx, we visited Summer Quest, which brought together New York City schools, and CBOs to provide learning and enrichment activities for nearly 1,800 elementary and middle school students from low-income families. In preparation for Summer Quest, teachers and CBO staff participated in joint professional development around project-based learning and co-facilitation. Program organizers observed from their experience in 2012 that the deeper level of collaboration between schools and CBOs required by Summer Quest resulted in better-aligned and impactful programming during the regular school year.

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A New Family Engagement Partnership with the National Center for Family Literacy

Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, announces the new partnership at the NCFL national conference

“Read to your child.”

“Help them with their homework.”

“Make sure they get a good night sleep.”

“And what else?…”

A parent is a child’s first and most important teacher, but our approaches to family engagement often fall short of recognizing the full potential of partnerships between schools and families. The challenges we face in education require that we go beyond these basic messages on family engagement – moving from communication to collaboration among schools and families.

This is why the U.S. Department of Education is working to develop better frameworks for family engagement, and why teacher-family collaboration is a component of RESPECT , our blueprint for elevating and transforming the teaching profession. We are also renewing our Together for Tomorrow initiative with an expanded emphasis on family partnerships to propel school improvement and produce better outcomes for students.

In support of these efforts, we are pleased to announce a new partnership with the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) to advance family engagement in education across the country.  NCFL brings to this work more than 20 years of experience providing tools and resources for educators and parents to create lifelong learning opportunities for the entire family.

Through the partnership, the Department and NCFL will jointly develop and implement strategies to raise the awareness and understanding of effective family and community engagement in education.  This will emphasize how teachers and families can better collaborate to improve student engagement and learning. We will work together to:

  • Convene community discussions on family engagement with educators, families and community leaders across the country.
  • Identify and compile promising practices and program examples for effective family engagement in education, so schools can employ leading practices that work.
  • Gather feedback on family engagement frameworks from educators, parents, advocates, and others in the education community.
  • Develop and disseminate resource materials to support family and community engagement in education. An example includes NCFL’s Wonderopolis, an online learning community that engages classrooms and families in the wonder of discovery.

We are eager to move this essential work forward, beginning with Together for Tomorrow community conversations in locations across the country.  These will spotlight promising practices and examples of school-family partnerships, and gather feedback to shape the Department’s family engagement efforts.

We also want to hear how your family-school partnerships are boosting student engagement and academic achievement.  Please email us your promising practices and program examples to edpartners@ed.gov

Michael Robbins is senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education

Bridging the School-Community Divide in Digital Learning

Michael Robbins at SXSWedu

ED’s Michael Robbins led a session on digital learning and collective impact in education at this year’s SXSWedu in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Instagram user chbrenchley.

I recently had the opportunity to speak at SXSWedu – a national education convening leading up to the South by Southwest festivals and conferences in Austin, TX. What began three years ago as a handful of education-focused sessions at SXSW Interactive has grown into an inspiring and informative gathering of over 4,000 participants from across the world.

Jeff Edmondson, the managing director of Strive, and I led a session on digital learning and collective impact in education – how technology can improve how schools, families, and communities collaborate to advance student engagement and learning. The power of technology to transform education was a major theme at SXSWedu, but the discussions in Austin underscored my concerns about how K-12 digital learning transitions are evolving.

Many conversations were intensely focused on technology to support school-based initiatives, but missing attention on how digital learning should connect students to their passions, peers, communities, and careers. We will miss essential opportunities to transform schools if transitions primarily create digital versions of traditional analog education processes – trading textbooks for tablets and paper files for databases.

At the other end of the spectrum were SXSWedu sessions on learning outside of schools, many of which approached schools as hurdles to be overcome instead of partners in learning. Frustrated by the slow pace of change, efforts like the maker movement and open badges have chosen to move ahead outside  K-12 institutions and bureaucracies. Despite significant advancements, most of these are on the sidelines of school district digital learning transitions, more likely to be the subject of TED talks than digital curricula or school turnaround plans.

Students and families are mostly left to themselves to connect the dots between school-based and non-school learning. The students most disadvantaged by these silos are ones already facing the greatest challenges inside and outside the classroom, and they could benefit the most from the digital learning that transcends the school-community divide. Partnerships between schools, families, and community-based organizations are an important way to bridge this divide, and ensure the success and sustainability of digital learning transitions.

I’ll be facilitating conversations to delve deeper into these issues as part of a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) that begins April 8 – advancing the Department’s efforts through Epic-ed to support digital learning transitions. Please join us for the MOOC to share your ideas on partnerships among schools, districts, teachers, community organizations, education technology companies, families, and others to ensure the digital learning revolution propels engagement and achievement for all students.

Michael Robbins is senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education

Community Partnerships for the Digital Learning Revolution

I wasn’t surprised to learn that my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama –The Rocket City – has launched one of the largest school district transitions to digital learning in the nation. I recently visited Huntsville to learn from their experience, and my conversations there reinforced for me that community and family partnerships are essential for the success of digital learning. We have unprecedented investment in education technology, but we don’t yet have the corresponding developments in partnerships to help transitions to digital learning succeed.

Boy with tablet deviceCommunity partnerships are key to realizing a digital learning revolution that is more than trading textbooks for tablets. This is an inflection point in education – a critical opportunity to transform how schools, parents, and community-based organizations collaborate to ignite student curiosity and engagement in learning.

Community and family partnerships can also reduce the possibility that digital learning transitions will exacerbate achievement gaps. Students that face the greatest challenges in and outside school need comprehensive supports to evolve so that digital learning doesn’t further disadvantage them.

Our community organizations, including faith-based organizations, have tremendous opportunities to support and shape the digital learning transition through four key areas of collaboration:

    • Expanding access and digital literacy;
    • Bridging between schools, families, and communities;
    • Service and volunteering in education; and
    • Creating new avenues for anytime-anywhere learning.

Expanding access and digital literacy.

Many students don’t have access outside school to computers, broadband connections, and basic technical support. The Obama Administration is working with a public-private partnership called Connect2Compete to expand low-cost internet, computers, and digital literacy instruction to low-income families.  Connect2Compete is building a network of local community partners, and community organizations can go here to learn more and link up with their efforts.

Bridging between schools, families, and communities.

Community and faith organizations can bridge the gap between home and school with their strong connections to families. Internet-based student data and learning management systems can improve collaboration between teachers, families, and community partners. Community-based organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, a Together for Tomorrow challenge winner, are using joint data systems with schools to focus student support services where they have the greatest impact.

A new report from the Department on Expanding Evidence Approaches for Learning in a Digital World, highlights the need for more efforts that connect community partners with school data systems. The report emphasizes that “young people learn and develop in a wide range of settings,” and we need to better use data “to support the full range of student needs and interests—both inside and outside schools and classrooms—to improve learning outcomes.”

Service and volunteering in education.

Digital learning systems are making it possible for partners to assist students using lessons developed by educators that are aligned with the school curriculum. This is expanding the range of volunteers that are confident and effective at assisting students inside and outside the classroom. Service and volunteer partners can also advance student learning through digital tools such as remote connections into classrooms, Open Education Resources, and internet-connected real-world experiences.

Digital partnerships aren’t limited to academic assistance, and can boost other key student outcomes.  iMentor is using digital learning to improve student behavior and increase college access. Their internet-based systems help train and support adult volunteers, who mentor students both virtually and in-person.

Creating new avenues for anytime-anywhere learning

Digital learning partnerships can help community-based organizations transform American education by expanding learning beyond the classroom. “Anytime-anywhere learning” is a key goal in our education technology plan and schools can’t accomplish this goal alone. Schools can partner with community-based initiatives like the HIVE Learning Networks that use new technologies and media to better connect students to their interests, aspirations, communities, and careers.

Community partners are using digital badges to change how and where students earn academic credit. For example, the Providence After School Alliance is developing digital badges as a central component of their credit-bearing afterschool and internship programs.

Getting started with digital learning partnerships.

The Department is participating in Digital Learning Day on February 6. Community organizations can learn more and jumpstart their digital learning partnerships at digitallearningday.org.

There are valuable information resources at our Office of Education Technology web page and Epic-ed, our initiative to support digital learning transitions. If you are already part of a digital learning partnership, share your examples on our Facebook page at facebook.com/edpartners.

The guidebooks on community partnerships and digital learning are yet to be written, so it is vital that community partners, families, schools, and education technology initiatives work together to develop their pathways to digital learning partnerships. Together we can ensure that digital learning boosts engagement and learning for all of our students. Education technology can help us create a community culture of education success, where everyone sees education as his or her responsibility, and there are clear and compelling pathways to assist.

Michael Robbins is senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education

Engaging Community Organizations in Education Through Blended Learning Partnerships

Cross-posted from the White House Blog.

Blended learning—blending online and site-based learning—could dramatically reshape how community-based organizations (CBOs) partner with schools and parents. Karen Cator, who directs our Office of Educational Technology, and I have been focusing on how blended learning promises new paths for CBOs to drive greater educational outcomes for students. Karen and I recently had the opportunity to engage with key national stakeholders on this issue at meetings in New York City.

On July 27, Karen was a featured speaker for The After School Corporation’s (TASC) Digital Learning Forum at Google New York. The forum highlighted the potential for community organizations to use out-of-school time to bring next-generation learning to kids with the greatest needs.

That afternoon, we and TASC gathered a working group of representatives from national nonprofits, community-based organizations, schools and school districts, philanthropy, education policy, and the education technology sector. We began developing an action agenda to improve learning opportunities through CBO-school partnerships that leverage blended learning.

We discussed how blended learning partnerships hold significant promise to spur higher achievement, deepen student engagement, and catalyze the next wave of education entrepreneurship. We identified a need to link community-based organizations to the education technology sector so that CBOs can learn about and implement useful blended learning solutions. We also need to define various models for blended learning partnerships that engage CBOs .

The group agreed to launch a web space with the results of our discussions and resources to expand our efforts. When that space is up and running, we’ll link to it from our website. We’ve also posted the discussion paper for the working group (pdf).

Michael Robbins is Senior Advisor for Nonprofit Partnerships at the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education.