School & District Management Opinion

In L.A., Summer in the City Can Make You Smarter

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — September 22, 2014 6 min read
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Summer learning programs are most immediately attractive because they keep students safe and engaged during the school vacation months. But that’s just the tip of the Popsicle.

“Summer of Learning” isn’t mostly about summer; it’s mostly about changing how learning takes place.

I’ve been a fan of this idea since I heard about its origins in Chicago in 2013, and I may have had a hand in bringing it to Los Angeles. Last summer I wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times suggesting that Mayor Eric Garcetti would do well to shift the power of his office from supporting expensive and mostly losing school board races to connecting the city’s many institutions with youth education.

The logic is pretty simple: your city can make you smart. It is no accident that youth in some parts of Los Angeles understand how to navigate the film business and that kids in other neighborhoods learn the beauty of car design from their parents and older siblings. Despite a global economy, industries localize, along with the knowledge that makes them possible. Cities that explicitly broaden the sources of organized learning create more educated youth.

Pioneered in 2013

Chicago pioneered the Summer of Learning in 2013. It served as a laboratory for some of the ideas that the MacArthur Foundation has been calling Connected Learning: powered by student interest, their connections with peers and friends, and connections to academic studies, civic engagement, and career opportunities.

Some 200,000 students showed up and they earned about 60,000 digital badges, which students can accumulate and use as evidence of learning.

As I wrote last spring: digital badges are attractive because they are sly disrupters. They don’t pick a political fight by challenging the governance of schools, as charter advocates do. Instead, they quietly expand the capacity of the education system by linking students with multiple sources of learning.

Last fall, Garcetti charged his then-education advisor, Thelma Melendez, with developing a Los Angeles version of SOL, and in May the mayor and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy launched the program. By this time, Melendez had moved from city hall to the school district, where she is associated with LAUSD’s huge extra-learning program called Beyond the Bell.

More Sophisticated and Coherent

In its first summer, LA/SOL was considerably smaller than its Chicago counterpart. But compared to the Windy City program, in many ways it was more sophisticated and coherent.

About 50,000 LAUSD students participated, and 52 community organizations offered some 131 digital badges.

Los Angeles’ program was much more integrated with the school system than was its counterpart in Chicago. LAUSD was the primary organizer of the project. In Chicago, the city and the non-profits drove the program.

LAUSD has tackled the difficult problem of linking Summer of Learning achievements with a student’s school record so that a teacher can see what his or her students did over the summer. Given the layers of privacy protections around student records, some enshrined in federal law, linking out-of-school learning to a student’s official learning record has proven to be a substantial problem. Solutions remain a work-in-progress.

The Beyond the Bell staff, including its administrator, Luis Mora, worked with the community organizations offering badges to insure that they had good measures of the skills and activities involved.

The LA/SOL program also offered training to community organizations giving badges. They learned how to construct badges, how to assess results, and how to guide students through the SOL web site and the registration process. Sybil Madison Boyd, of DePaul University in Chicago, who helped train providers in L.A., said “it’s not just about the badges; its about creating networks for kid’s learning.”

Students can access the menu of opportunities through the LA/SOL web site, which lets them explore options by category “numbers”, specific learning experience “coding”, or by finding offerings geographically.

In addition to the badges offered through Los Angeles organizations, the program offered scores of on-line badges that had been curated by the Digital Youth Network headquartered at DePaul.

But most students signed up because they already had a relationship with one of the community organizations. Jennifer Abssy from Inner City Arts said that the participation badges made it possible that “kids could be validated for the time they spent with our organization.”

I Become an SOL Student

Mora led me through the easy sign up process on the web site, although I had to fudge my age by about half a century to qualify as a student. Then, it let me search for things that interested me.

That’s the key to the SOL idea: it starts with student immediate interest and creates pathways that link one learning activity to another. The web site suggested how I could “level up” to more sophisticated challenges.

I earned a badge—Mora awarded me one just for showing up, if real life was only this easy—and it was stored in my secure account using a computer protocol developed by Mozilla, the Firefox browser people.

I decided that I was interested in community action and storytelling.

The first thing I saw was an on-line course called “a taste of journalism.” Right for me, I thought. For the first assignment I was asked to critique interviews from documentaries. I was asked to list the techniques I thought were effective or not, and how I might use them in a future project that I would undertake. Mora told me that trained assessors, who were part of the Digital Youth Network program, graded all the on-line activities. With parental consent, I can share my badges with teachers, friends, and potential employers.

Then I found the Getty Villa “art detective” badge: live, in person, and in Malibu. Sounded good. The instructions were easy. I’d visit the museum, pick up a Museum Detective Card, and follow the instructions.

But I was looking for something with a little more active learning, and found the Venice Arts badges for film and photography.

Venice Arts offered photo and film badges that required that students learn the basics of photography and film making by putting their cameras in “manual” mode.

  • What are the three parts of the camera that control exposure? students were asked. And what if your picture was underexposed when “your aperture is at f-8 with a 1/125 shutter speed and at ISO 400,” how could you fix that.
  • Then students were asked to submit photos or movie clips to show that they could take the technical instructions and create images.

I could do that, I thought. Later, Issa Sharp, director of education at Venice Arts, explained that the photo class was part of their summer art media camp, involving more than 130 kids over four weeks. Her colleague Elysa Voshell has written about how their projects use informal learning to combine science, technology, and art.

One Thing Leads to Another

LA/SOL also created linkages between badges so that one thing led to another. Connections between badges created what old-fashioned educators would call a curriculum. For example, the Beyond the Bell staff created five workforce readiness badges that taught skills such as resume writing and interviewing. Completing all five unlocked fast track access to the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce work certification badge that, in turn, opens doors to private sector internships and summer jobs.

The city of L.A. also has jobs programs, where students are selected by lottery. The lucky winners were required to complete work readiness badges before they could go to work.

The City of Los Angeles gang reduction and youth development department linked SOL/LA to its Summer Night Lights program that extended the hours and activities in 16 parks and recreational facilities. Mayra Ceballos, from the city staff, said the badge training and mock interviews, created students “able to sell themselves more confidently.”

The Connected Learning agenda is growing. Similar summer programs were started in Dallas, TX, Columbus, OH, Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh, PA. In Los Angeles, the school district is extending the badging program year-around, and the fall offerings are due out soon.

(This post was updated on 9/24 to correct Issa Sharp’s title and the authorship of the Venice Arts blog.)

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