Reimagining Education through Summer Learning Partnerships

Group meeting in the South Bronx

NYC School Chancellor Dennis Walcott joined community partners, school leaders, and students for the kickoff of Summer Quest at P.S. 211 in the South Bronx

As our students head back to school, we are reflecting on initiatives we saw this summer that can invigorate student engagement and learning year round. As part of Together for Tomorrow –our effort to strengthen partnerships among schools, families, and communities — we visited summer learning initiatives in the South Bronx, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Brenda Girton-Mitchell and I led discussions in these communities to share promising practices and to provide feedback to shape the U.S. Department of Education’s community and family engagement efforts.

These discussions also extended work the Department began earlier this year, along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, on Reimagining Education. Each place we visited is home to a Hive Learning Network — a collective of organizations, made possible through MacArthur Foundation support, where young people can pursue a diversity of learning experiences in their community. The summer initiatives we explored were anchored by strong collaboration among schools, families, and community-based organizations (CBOs).

In the South Bronx, we visited Summer Quest, which brought together New York City schools, and CBOs to provide learning and enrichment activities for nearly 1,800 elementary and middle school students from low-income families. In preparation for Summer Quest, teachers and CBO staff participated in joint professional development around project-based learning and co-facilitation. Program organizers observed from their experience in 2012 that the deeper level of collaboration between schools and CBOs required by Summer Quest resulted in better-aligned and impactful programming during the regular school year.

We also saw summer programming in action at Iridescent, a science-education nonprofit that has a significant focus on parent engagement and support. Their Curiosity Machine website inspired me and my 7-year-old son to do their stomp rockets activity together and we even made a video as part of the project.

In Pittsburgh, The Sprout Fund and local community and school leaders shared with us summer programming from the Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network, a learning initiative joining more than 100 organizations, including schools, museums, libraries, afterschool programs, community centers, higher education institutions, the private sector, and the philanthropic community.

We talked with staff and visitors at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum Makeshop where youth and their parents learn together through designing and making tangible objects. We also saw firsthand how the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University is engaging youth in learning experiences through programs such as Hear Me where students learn about community issues that affect them and use technology tools to have their voices heard.

With summer coming to an end, we visited Chicago to explore the Chicago Summer of Learning where a far-reaching collaboration engaged more than 210,000 young people in learning opportunities provided by more than 100 organizations. Nearly 100,000 badges were awarded to students engaged in a plethora of on-line and on-site learning opportunities across the city.

In each of these cities we discovered inspiring learning opportunities made possible through partnerships between schools, families, and community organizations.

We searched for promising practices in summer learning that could increase student engagement and learning year round. Some common approaches among initiatives matched up closely with the work from our Reimagining Education convening:

  • Providing inspiring learning opportunities that connect students to their passions, peers, communities, and careers;
  • Allowing students to create and navigate learning pathways that blur the lines between learning in schools, homes, and communities;
  • Helping parents to be learning coaches and co-learners with their children;
  • Recognizing learning and achievement through competency-based methods like badges;
  • Combining online and in-person experiences and using technology for collaboration; and
  • Building community partnerships and integrated supports to ensure that all students succeed.

I’m eager to see how the South Bronx, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and other communities build on their summer programming to incorporate these practices into the regular school year.

Michael Robbins is senior advisor for nonprofit partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education


  1. The Chicago Summer of Learning (CSOL) was great for our organization! We were able to support more youth with quality programming because of the partnerships. You can check out some of our stories from this summer on our website: or on Facebook: /MikvaChallenge

  2. Thank you for including specific examples in this post. I viewed the Hive Network website, but when I clicked on Hive New York City, all the entries on the first page were about Toronto. Toronto is a city in Canada. I finally found a post that wasn’t about Toronto. It was about Indian Independence Day. It did not refer to indigenous peoples of the Americas. Before learning about East India, I think it is more important that children, well, children in the U.S.A., learn about the history of people in our own country, specifically American Indians.

    I also viewed the website for Curiosity Machine, listed in this post with the anchor text of stomp rockets, and Iridescent. I was happy to see that it was sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, in the footer, but I saw no rockets.

  3. We held a summer STEAM camp. We integrated science, math technology and the arts into a camp like atmosphere while also adding a focused reading time. Students learned about the local apple industry and worked in our school gardens, nature trail and butterfly garden. A field trip to a local apple farm was a culminating activity. We hope to grow the program next year to include more students.

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