Classrooms fall silent during the summer months, but thanks to a nation-wide enrichment program now in its third summer, learning continues.
Dallas City of Learning, a private-public commitment convened by the City of Dallas and Dallas Independent School District along with Big Thought, aims to close the opportunity gap by offering unique educational opportunities to Dallas students.
Research indicates summer is a time of learning loss, and this loss is even more acute for the one in three Dallas students living in poverty.
Big Thought, a non-profit organization that partners with multiple area agencies to provide educational, artistic, and cultural programs for children, recognized the need to connect students to creative learning options.
Jessica Malek, Big Thought’s Vice President of Knowledge and Innovation, said that when Big Thought looked at the technology component of a new learning initiative in Chicago developed in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation, they discovered Chicago had developed “a powerful vision with a systematic approach to out-of-school learning.”
In 2014, Dallas joined with Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Washington D.C. to become a vanguard city of the City of Learning program.
Dallas City of Learning uses technology to leverage Big Thought’s partnerships, change how students access learning opportunities, and help students realize their full potential.
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“Dallas has a perfect set of criteria and an infinite number of resources in our partners. It’s messy, but people are willing to put in the elbow grease. There’s a culture of not being risk-adverse to doing something to benefit the community,” Malek said.
Big Thought networks with over 200 partners including Dallas Independent School District, the Dallas Public Library system, cultural institutions, and businesses to develop programs for students to experience their city with digital and in-person activities.
Students discover and develop passions and much of the success of this program is credited to being driven by the student’s interests.
“The city becomes a classroom,” Malek said.
Students develop a profile on the program’s digital platform, create content to demonstrate what they have learned, and earn digital badges to reflect what they have achieved.
Kristina Dove, Big Thought’s program manager of partner relations, said she watches as students interact with the digital platform. She noted the confidence of students returning to the program.
“They are telling friends, ‘I’ve got this down. Let me show you!’ They become ambassadors,” Dove said.
The list of activities available through Dallas City of Learning is extensive. The Dallas Holocaust Museum encourages students to research history’s “upstanders” like Anne Frank and then challenges them to become upstanders by volunteering.
The Dallas Opera’s boot camp offers a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to produce an opera and concludes with a performance of The Three Little Pigs. Spark! provides a multi-media exploration of art and challenges students to create a sculpture to earn a “Think It/Build It” badge.
Spark is participating with Dallas City of Learning for the first time this summer. Lori Carey, the community engagement manager for Spark, is excited about reaching new students through the program.
“Dallas City of Learning had their summer kick-off event at Spark! Not only were DISD and Uplift students able to register on-site but the event itself brought great publicity and helped generate a whole new wave of followers on social media. Dallas City of Learning’s on-going efforts mixed with that one big push has helped raise awareness of Spark, The online platform also gives people a direct link to our website, so teachers and parents are only a click-away from learning more about our programs.”
Carey credits Dallas City of Learning with the ability of Spark to engage with students.
“Partnering with Dallas City of Learning has allowed us to extend our program offerings to children from all different backgrounds,” Carey said. “We even created Digital XPs (online activities) which allow children who can’t get here to participate in our program from home.”
Reaching students who do not have access to computers has been challenge for Dallas City of Learning.
In the first two years of program, nearly 35,000 students participated and 70 percent of the participants were from economically challenged families. Big Thought works to meet the needs of students who may not have computers in their homes by loaning laptops and deploying a mobile tech bus. Big Thought will also work with parents and book buses to transport students to in-person activities.
Reaching students from all backgrounds, encouraging a lifestyle of learning, and helping students develop skills for school and eventually the workplace is the imperative goal of the program.
Dove sees Dallas City of Learning as an opportunity for the city as a whole to nurture students’ talents into career options.
“If they find their spark, as a society, we should acknowledge it and help them build on it,” Dove said.
Dove would like to see the work the students do through Dallas City of Learning count towards school and college credit. Malek hopes the program will become an international initiative. The program is growing nationally. In addition to the vanguard cities, the program is available in West Sacramento, San Jose, San Diego, Kansas City, Central Ohio, Springfield, Rochester and Philadephia.
The vanguard cities mentor cities new to the program, discussing issues and brainstorming solutions to common problems.
Dallas contributed significantly to building fundraising tool-kits and helping new cities talk to funders about the program.
Demonstrating how collaboration works on a national and local level is another responsibility of vanguard cities. In Dallas, Big Thought trains new local partners for the program from January to June, when the program begins.
After the summer concludes, a debriefing session investigates what went well and what could improve for the next summer.
With Dallas City of Learning, businesses and non-profits learn to cooperate to educate the city’s youth. Students learn opportunity abounds. In Dallas, summertime is all about learning.