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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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

Silicon Valley Works to Improve Career Pathways for Community Colleges Students

Kanter at Google

Under Secretary Martha Kanter speaks with students during her visit to Google headquarters. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

With a putting green, 18 cafeterias, gardens and even a giant statue of a dinosaur, one may not associate Google’s massive headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., as a place where Department of Education officials, educators and business leaders come together to discuss career pathways for community college students.

Yet during a recent stop by U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, the novelty of Google’s complex were the last thing on the mind as leaders from Google, Cisco Systems, Lockheed Martin—Space Systems and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group came together for a panel discussion on innovative strategies to improve career pathways for community college students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The 90-minute discussion – in front of a large audience comprised of regional industry leaders, community college presidents, K-12 educators, local policymakers and students – included Kanter’s detailed description of the Obama Administration’s support of STEM education at community colleges, highlighting the $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College Career Training grant program that funds the pairing of community colleges with workforce partners to ensure that graduates are career-ready with the knowledge and skills that employers need.

Kanter speaks with educators at GoogleAfter the formal program and a Q-and-A session ended, many of the participants stayed to continue the discussion. Dennis Cima, senior vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an association of 380 Silicon Valley employers, talked about the value of linking K-12 schools, community colleges and businesses.

“We know how important it is to create connections between education and industry,” Cima said. “Because once those connections are made, then industry has the ability to really help education fill its own needs. This was an opportunity to open people’s eyes about how important those public-private partnerships are.”

Google’s director of education and university relations, Maggie Johnson, who was a panelist, said that she found the session to be a good start because it brought the right people together.

“I really liked the part that came out around how there are very many different sectors that need to come together and coordinate in order to really make something happen,” Johnson said. “We got the community colleges in the room; we have industry; we have government. So at least we got everybody in the room. Where it goes from here, we’ll have to see.”

Kanter’s assessment of the value was similar to Johnson’s. “I think it was the beginning of what I hope will become a call to action, so the different sectors of education, business, philanthropy, government, labor, and community partners can come together to say, ‘How can these stakeholders – working together across sectors – architect a plan for this region to lead the way, through innovation, to make sure that every student gets the best possible education and is prepared, college-and-career ready, for the jobs now and for the future?’”

Joe Barison is the Director of Communications and Outreach for ED’s San Francisco Regional Office.

The University and the Economy

America’s colleges and universities often make a significant difference in the lives of their communities. This was apparent at the University of Northern Colorado where President Kay Norton, faculty and staff have taken bold steps to keep Greeley and the university inextricably linked through the thick and thin of the region’s economic recovery. With 6,700 postsecondary institutions across our nation, I think it’s critical for government to learn from what I call examples of excellence so we can provide the incentives that will spread positive change more broadly.

Arriving on campus for a summit on College Affordability and Completion that took place on Feb. 23, I was given a report on a University District initiative that contained a map of the region dotted with blue marks. President Norton explained that the blue dots marked the locations of the residences of thousands of Greeley students, alums and employees with deep roots in the community.

Kanter and Norton

University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton and U.S. Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter in front of "Front Range Rainstorm" by Artist and Professor Emeritus Fredric L. Myers

In fact, one of every seven residents has a connection to UNC. At the meetings with business, government and academic leaders of the region, the interdependencies created between Greeley and UNC stood out. Company leaders were expanding their investments in Greeley. These business leaders clearly regard the university as their partner. As President Norton drove me around the region, she pointed out several areas ripe for redevelopment in which the university, government and business are working together to plan, design and construct a University District that exemplifies “An America Built to Last,” a central tenet of the Obama Administration’s Education Blueprint released on January 24.

President Norton told me that UNC’s partnership with the community dates back to the institution’s beginning, when residents lobbied the Legislature to establish a state school for training teachers in Greeley and then funded much of the start-up cost. Then, like now, residents recognized the role of higher education in building both economic and social value. She went on to say that UNC is one of the region’s largest employers and pointed out several other major employers, including North Colorado Medical Center, State Farm, the local school district and the City of Greeley, which are growing the local workforce as they work closely with the university to ensure that their employees have the requisite knowledge and skills when they earn degrees and certificates from UNC.

Those efforts matter. On average, college graduates are twice as likely to be employed as those with only a high school diploma. And the difference in earnings is growing.  Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that high school graduates in 1979 earned about 72 cents for every dollar that bachelor’s degree holders did; today they earn just 55 cents. In fact, the disparity today between weekly earnings for bachelor’s degree holders and high school graduates is greater than both the gender and racial pay gaps in our nation.

The challenge before us is great. Estimates from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce project that, unless we do dramatically better, we’ll produce three million fewer college graduates than are needed by our economy within the next decade.

That’s a gap that could make it hard for American employers to fill high-skill positions. Worse yet, this gap will hamper innovations and advancements that could open up new industries and sources of future jobs. But we can change these predictions, if we act now as UNC is doing. According to the Center, by adding an additional 20 million postsecondary-educated workers over the next 15 years, our national level of educational attainment would be comparable to the best-educated nations, help us meet the economy’s need for innovation, and reverse the growth of income inequality.

It was difficult but necessary for me to note that in just one year (FY11-FY12), Colorado reduced its state fiscal support for higher education by 15.4%, ranking 46 of our 50 states. President Norton said that UNC is becoming an “enterprise institution of higher education” as the institution’s leaders have worked to cut costs significantly over the past few years while also maintaining UNC’s commitment to access and quality as it serves the growing number of students coming to UNC.

As we returned to the campus and drove by residence halls, playing fields and the Campus Recreation Center, President Norton pointed out that “not one penny of federal or state government support was spent to build these facilities.” Reductions in state taxpayer support ultimately put pressure on students as universities rely more on tuition and fees to provide a high-quality educational experience.

President Obama has made a series of bold proposals for FY13 that includes a Race to the Top for College Affordability and Completion, a new partnership between states, higher education and the federal government to help states put reasonable financial plans for education in place and give higher priority to colleges and universities who are providing good value, serving high need students well, and keeping college affordable for the middle class.

As we look ahead, UNC’s partnership with Greeley is a model for the way 21st century communities can grow and thrive as we think of creative ways to invest in education and the economy for a nation “built to last.”

Martha Kanter is the Under Secretary of Education

Teaming Up in Philly to Promote Childhood Literacy

For the almost 8,000 students in the 14 square-mile radius of West Philadelphia, discovering the world of books isn’t easy. Many of the area’s schools lack library facilities, and, if libraries are on school grounds, they often have few books. Research tells us that early literacy can positively affect the course of a student’s educational career, and children without access to books are not only missing an essential component of a well-rounded education, but may also be restricted in imagination and creativity.

During a recent Askwith Forum at Harvard, Secretary Duncan said that he knows “what’s possible when we give young people long-term guidance, educational opportunities, and the commitment and connection of a caring adult. I know our students can be successful, regardless of their zip code and background.”

David Florig, Dianne Williams, and Mica Navarro Lopez pose in the WePAC office, which is adorned with student thank-you notes and artwork.

David Florig, Dianne Williams, and Mica Navarro Lopez pose in the WePAC office, which is adorned with student thank-you notes and artwork.

The West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC) is working to promote those education opportunities Duncan spoke of by revitalizing Philadelphia school libraries, facilitating academic mentoring, and sponsoring after-school enrichment activities. WePAC volunteers, who not only staff libraries but also run newspaper clubs for students in the 5th through 7th grades, donated more than 6,600 hours of time in schools during the 2010-2011 school year. These volunteers involve students in conducting interviews and writing both creative and informative articles. In this way, WePAC promotes childhood literacy and also a love of language through writing.

In recent months, staff at the U.S. Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development teamed up to donate nearly 400 books to support WePAC’s contributions to the Philadelphia community.

“HUD seeks to use housing as a platform to improve the quality of life for communities by addressing the issues of education, health care, and transportation systems,” said HUD Regional Administrator Jane C.W. Vincent. “So, providing books to WePAC in partnership with ED is just one of many ways we can collaborate to improve the quality of education in communities throughout Philadelphia and the region.”

Since its inception in 2003, WePAC has opened 11 libraries. The organization’s 12th library, at Edward Heston School, will open in February. Heston, like other schools in which WePAC works, predominantly serves African-American students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In this way, WePAC has helped to realize Secretary Duncan’s challenge to remove the barriers of zip code and background.

In less than 10 years, the organization has donated over 25,000 books, circulated more than 2,500 books per month, and reached over 3,000 students. David Florig, WePAC executive director, however, suggests that as many as 24 libraries in the area have the capacity to be restored or reopened. Administrators, teachers, and parents often approach WePAC volunteers and staff asking for the organization’s assistance in their schools.

“We view ourselves as filling a gap, but at the same time, we serve as a ‘wake-up call’ for many people,” said Mica Navarro Lopez, library programs coordinator. “People assume library access is still available.”

“Students check out books to read to their younger siblings. Even if their parents don’t read to them, [children] still have access to books,” said Navarro Lopez.

Students’ literary “altruism” extends beyond the school and home and into the communities in which WePAC serves. In 2011, a school whose library was transformed by WePAC held a book drive for another WePAC school.

“Students feel more empowered around reading,” said Florig. “We’re hoping to make school fun and reading interesting to kids.”

–Meredith Bajgier is a part-time employee in ED’s Philadelphia Regional Office through Drexel University’s work-study program.