Student Achievement Opinion

L.A. Mayor, Schools, Nonprofits to Debut Innovative Summer Program

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 22, 2014 3 min read
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Can your city make you smart?

Los Angeles is one of the great cities of the world. It surrounds it residents with all kinds of opportunities to learn. And, following the model of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the Chicago Summer of Learning, civic leaders here are about to reward young people who seize those opportunities. Can you say “merit badges?”

The City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District are partnering with more than a score of community organizations to offer programs this summer that will encourage students in four neighborhoods to access the cultural and intellectual assets that surround them.

The soon to be announced mayoral initiative will cover four neighborhoods generally associated with poverty, crime, and other marks of urban dysfunction rather than assets: South Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Pacoima and the East San Fernando Valley, plus the designated Promise Zone area that runs from Hollywood south to Pico Union.

Each neighborhood has spawned vibrant community organizations, such as Inner City Arts and Boys and Girls Clubs. Each has libraries, parks, and recreation facilities. Each has schools with a long history of after school programs. (LAUSD’s Beyond the Bell Branch is the largest provider of after school and beyond programs in the county.) The strategy of this new summer program is to get disconnected efforts to work together.

Thelma Melendez, the former education advisor to Mayor Eric Garcetti and now an administrator with LAUSD, is now leading a team to design the program around adding evening hours for facilities, paid jobs for youth, and a revolutionary way of keeping, recording, and recognizing learning. Melendez presented an outline of the program at a recent conference. The mayor’s office, LAUSD, nonprofits, and the MacArthur Foundation have been involved in program development.

The revolutionary part of the summer program is about “Digital Badges” which sound wonky, but they have real potential to change education. Digital badges function similarly to those that Boy and Girl Scout organizations have issued for a century. They are indicators of accomplishment, skill, or interest. And when badges are aggregated, they can indicate levels of achievement--moving up to Eagle Scout--or a pathway to a more difficult challenge. Pathways can also carry rewards: summer jobs or paid internships, for example.

The technology behind digital badges allows the diversity of experiences available in cities to make students smart in ways that count. In Chicago last summer, more than 60,000 students gained recognition what they learned in many different places: libraries, schools, job training, online learning opportunities, even universities. The Mozilla Foundation--the organization behind the Firefox web browser--has created the open-source software that allows many different providers to create activities leading to a badge. And students can store and retrieve detailed learning records at any time. Students can place their badges on social networking pages and provide them as evidence of experience when applying to college or for a job.

In LAUSD, badge achievement will also become part of a student’s school record.

Increasingly, digital badges are being used as evidence of learning that goes beyond conventional tests, particularly standardized tests, as learning records. Digital badges are well suited to documenting experiential learning and the application of knowledge inherent in the new Common Core learning standards. Badges can also help link schools and employers.

The MacArthur Foundation, which has supported Mozilla in the creation of the badging infrastructure, is lending technical and consultative advice to the nascent Los Angeles summer program. “We have incredible learning resources, but they are highly fragmented and disconnected. What we desperately need is to connect the learning resources we have to the most important parts of kids’ world. That’s why badges are important,” Connie Yowell, the foundation’s director of education, said at a conference in February.

MacArthur has also supported the startup of the Los Angeles summer program. And influential educators have also weighed in. Sanjay Sarma, director of digital education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, met with Melendez and pledged support from his institution and its alums.

Although the plans are not complete, the summer learning idea looks like a good way to capture neighborhood knowledge, connected it to wider worlds, and make both count for kids.

Next: why digital badges can revolutionize education. It’s not just about summer.

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