Towards a Vision of Cross-City Learning

There's a good story in the current Education Week about Pittsburgh Network Eyed as Model for Supporting Digital Learning praising Pittsburgh as a beacon for citywide learning: "From hands-on circuitry projects for kindergartners to 'maker spaces' inside local museums, this former steel town has quietly emerged as a national model for supporting fresh approaches to technology-infused education, especially for young children."  The article attributes the energy and innovation as flowing from a close-knit network of philanthropists, educators, technologists, and advocates who prize collaboration over competition.  The article quotes the MacArthur Foundation's Connie Yowell as positing Pittsburgh as "absolutely a leader when it comes to building a learning ecosystem for the 21st century."  Importantly, Yowell underscores that the city's active funders and universities, as well as the willingness of unlikely partners to work together, are "core ingredients for really dynamic learning opportunities."  

The article describes the emergence of the Kids+Creativity Network, now anchored by groups including the Grable Foundation, the Sprout Fund, Carnegie Mellon University, the Pittsburgh Children's Museum; the city's public libraries, the Pittsburgh Technology Council, a trade association, and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a public administrative agency that provides support to 42 area school districts.  I wasn't familiar with this network, only with the Hive Learning Network there, which has also been important in building culture and infrastructure and seeding compelling projects.  

Significant investments by private philanthropists, both of money and of time and wisdom, have been vital, given how challenging it can be to foster systemic, sustainable cross-sector collaboration, particularly when it involves the school district and schools.  The article quotes Pittsburgh Public Schools' Chief of Information and Technology noting"The ability to be entrepreneurial goes against what our institutions have been trained to be.  Most urban districts are a big ship, not a nimble boat."  This is a sad reality to hear about a system with only 25,000 students (as compared to our 1.1 million students in NYC...)  Yet including the district in digital innovation is essential if the effort is to have the breadth of benefit that is sought.

While extolling the virtues of the efforts underway in Pittsburgh, the article doesn't sugarcoat the complexity and challenge of city-scale endeavors.  In addition to the challenges of school district partnership, lack of robust broadband and wireless access has been problematic.  The article also notes that large pockets of southwestern Pennsylvania—including Pittsburgh's devastated Homewood neighborhood—are profoundly disconnected from the city's overall renaissance.  One of the signature initiatives, an app called Message From Me, is of limited utility for a population making less than $25,000 a year.

This awareness is very much on the radar of HiveNYC and at the crux of the Youth Trajectories Affinity Group (YTAG) that I co-facilitate with Dixie Ching of the wonderful Hive Research Lab who has devoted significant attention to the role of "youth brokering," particularly within the most underresourced communities.  Dixie and co-HRL founder Rafi Santo are in fact working on a white paper on this topic that will be an important contribution to the field.

There are a variety of valuable lessons for NYC to absorb from Pittsburgh, and I'm eager to continue exploring and discussing key takeaways in terms of the role of funders, of cross-organizational consortium, of CBO-school district partnership, and of city government.