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Sep 05 2014

Youth-serving Organizations as School Partners: A Pathway to Interest-driven Learning for Students

Connected Learning, Guest Post, Members

This is a guest post by Rob DiRenzo, Partnership Development Manager for Digital Ready

More schools should be doing this, so we can have the experience to help us in the future.
–Yan Fen, student at Brooklyn International High School

As educators, whether in-school or out-of-school, we know how important relevancy is to our students. We often hear, “When am I ever going to use this?” We know that one reason some young people disengage from school and learning in general is lack of relevancy (Washor and Mojkowski). It may be that they are not given enough meaningful opportunities to apply their knowledge and skills in real world settings.

Today’s educators are increasingly challenged to think outside the box and create more authentic and relevant learning opportunities for students. Schools need to figure out ways for students to bring their interests into school and nurture these interests into lifelong pursuits. One promising approach to offering students more opportunities to explore, engage, and practice their interests and to nurturing interest-driven pathways is through expanded learning opportunities (ELOs).

Strategic partnerships forged between schools and youth-serving organizations give schools the ability to connect in-school and out-of-school learning in ELOs tailored to their students’ interests.

Screen Shot 2014-09-05 at 10.31.57 AMAt Digital Ready we work closely with schools and youth-serving organizations to develop ELOs. These ELOs provide students with authentic contexts for learning and the ability to drive their own education. They also allow students to see themselves in different contexts. Our ELOs go beyond traditional notions of after-school activities because they are the result of design collaborations between educators in schools and at partner organizations. We expect Digital Ready ELOs both to expand learning and to connect meaningfully to students’ experiences in school. Most schools face the challenge of limited time, resources, and capacity, but schools that prioritize ELOs are able to lead the way with strong partnerships.

A key to the success of this work is Digital Ready’s partnership with Hive NYC. It has been invaluable to collaborate with a network of organizations whose focus is on designing innovative educational experiences for youth based on Connected Learning Principles.  Working with a network of organizations who share learning and design principles, as well as their core values makes linking youth’s experiences a lot easier.  It also allows educators to easily collaborate across multiple organizations to support their educational mission and build relationships.

Here is a powerful example of an ELO partnership from Brooklyn International High School (BIHS), a Digital Ready school that serves English Language Learners from more than 30 countries.

BIHS employs partnerships to provide authentic learning experiences for their students both during and after school. BIHS uses thoughtful scheduling and flexibility both to supplement existing curricular offerings and to offer additional opportunities to their students. These opportunities have allowed students to realize that tasks require collaboration, problem solving, and critical thinking—the most crucial and sought-after 21st Century skills needed for success in life, college, and careers. These examples illustrate that committed schools and partners can collaborate effectively on student-centered projects that connect to content- and career-specific pathways. During the 2013-14 school year, the school offered the following ELO experiences to their students:

  • BIHS and Beam Center collaborated on an interdisciplinary unit across grades 9 and 10 on the science of sound, and co-planned with the school a solar lamp elective in which students created their own lamps while learning about electronic sensing systems, soldering, and plastic fabrication using reclaimed materials.
  • A group of students participated in the BeamWorks Internship Program, which integrated programming, carpentry, welding, and art into a 3D sculpture.
  • ScriptEd offered a computer programming course for academic credit using the ScriptEd curriculum. During the school year, students participated in two separate hackathons, and, over the summer, some BIHS students were chosen for technology internships at localcompanies such as Ghostery Inc., Teach for America, and Contently.
  • Throughout the year, Tribeca Film Institute’s Tribeca Teaches program co-planned with a teacher to have her students write, edit, act and produce a short film titled Dance For Life, about two recent immigrant students who connect through dance.
  • A group of female students were mentored through Iridescent’s Technovation Challenge curriculum and develop an app called “Do-Nation” for the competition.
  • By creating an interactive college scavenger hunt, Brooklyn College Community Partnership offered students the ability to familiarize themselves with Brooklyn College, interact with college students, learn about the college admission process and advice on college preparation.
  • Throughout the year, BRIC Arts offered selectives in video production and storytelling and web design to build the students’ capacity for digitizing their own portfolio of work.

Initiating and supporting these relationships is a primary component of my role as Partnership Development Manager for Digital Ready.  Schools and partners frequently express the need for an intermediary to help with this “heavy lifting.”  As with any relationship, it comes with having a deep knowledge of schools’ and partners’ needs and constraints. As the intermediary between schools and these organizations, Digital Ready invests a significant amount of money to seed fund partnership development as well as time to administer, strategize, and sustain high-functioning collaborative partnerships. Sometimes, it is also about thoughtful match-making; I often find myself saying, “You should speak to so-and-so!” To ensure that everyone speaks the same language, Digital Ready brings schools and partners together around important topics such as systems and structures, academic credit and aligning with standards, shared assessments, and problems of practice and scale.

Courtesy  of BCCP

Year two of the Digital Ready program has begun with the 2014-2015 school year, with 10 additional schools as well as more youth-serving organizations from the Hive community. As we scale, we begin to think about sustainability for our schools and partners alike. How do we sustain these partnership in a landscape of limited funding resources?  How do we challenge schools and organizations to think more deeply about linking these learning experiences for their youth? As we work toward finding answers to these questions, it’s helpful to keep in mind the most worthwhile aspect of the work: giving students rich, meaningful opportunities to show what they know, explore and deepen their interests, gain autonomy and choice, and discover they have unique skills.

Students at BIHS highly valued their real-world ELO experiences. Some of their feedback: “Textbooks don’t work sometimes. If you are doing real life, that will be better for you,” and “Doing real life, we get the experience,” and “More schools should be doing this, have the experience to help us in the future.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Digital Ready is a program of the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness, with generous support from the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

Photos are courtesy of Beam Center and Brooklyn College Community Partnership.


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