A group of high school students crowds around white posters with colorful headings describing various types of wellness, including “Intellectual” and “Spiritual.” The group’s goal: Come up with definitions for six categories of wellness and use Twitter to discuss the ideas.

“Make sure to use those hash tags when you tweet,” council leader Josh Prudowsky says to the group, “so we can all start a conversation on what is wellness.”

The students are members of the Teen Health Council at Mikva Challenge, a non-profit that teaches teens how to get involved in the political process through civic action. The council will meet weekly over the summer and use what they learn about wellness to write policy recommendations for how to improve healthy living among youth in Chicago.

Mikva Challenge is one of 140 organizations taking part in the city’s Summer of Learning initiative. While most summer school programs offered in Chicago Public Schools are remedial–intended mostly for students in danger of being held back or high school students behind in credits–the Summer of Learning initiative is meant to fill the gap with high-quality enrichment opportunities.

“There’s constant learning going on because they do a lot of research, a lot of team-building,” says Miriam Martinez, director of the education council at Mikva Challenge. “The learning just doesn’t stop.” 

The focus is on activities in science, technology, engineering, arts and math–or, what the district is calling STEAM. 

Students participating in Summer of Learning can earn a perk that the city and its partners hope will be an added incentive: “digital badges” that can serve as a credential to show schools, potential employers and colleges that students have acquired various skills. Chicago is the first city in the nation to launch a citywide pilot of the badge system, one that is modeled on Mozilla Open Badges, a platform where users can earn badges and store them in a virtual backpack that is displayed online.

Mozilla and the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a major supporter of digital learning, are partners with Chicago on the initiative.

“The goal of badges is to capture your complete learning path – inside and outside of the classroom,” says Meg Cole, Mozilla’s marketing and community strategy leader. “It’s really to help you build and communicate your reputation, and reinvent your credentials so they’re transferrable.”

Students get an opportunity to explore different topics outside a classroom setting, and develop technical or social skills that aren’t necessarily measured by standardized tests but are still valuable. For example, children at Project Wishcraft’s summer camp design their own dresses and participate in a camp-wide fashion show–without realizing until afterward how important math skills were when it came to cutting patterns. Mikva’s Teen Council members tweet from their cell phones, describing their concepts of wellness and becoming more familiar with how technology connects people and disseminates ideas.

“If you look at the patterns of many of our students these days, they’re incredibly mobile,” says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellence in Education. “They’re always moving. Badges give you flexibility and the opportunity to connect all these different learning sources, and recognize and certify what that student has done.” 

Ultimately, the goal is for badges to become an avenue for students to show they have developed recognized skills. According to Cole, that goal is edging closer to reality: The number of organizations that issue Mozilla Open Badges has grown from 100 to 1,000 in the last year, and DePaul University announced last month that it will consider Open Badges as part of its admissions process. Two other schools, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the State University of New York- Empire State College, already issue and recognize digital badges.

Chicago Public Schools is not issuing credit for the badges, but calls them a “supplement to the classroom.”

Mikva Challenge began using a non-digital badge system a year ago, and easily incorporated the digital badges into their program. Students can earn up to 10 badges this summer for skills like digital advocacy, critical thinking and persuasive writing. Mikva plans to develop at least 10 more badges for next summer.

Challenges of quality, equity

As the city forges ahead with the digital badge program, the overall quality of summer learning programs is a challenge that still must be solved.

“A big piece is getting away from that remedial model,” says Peggy Espada, director of professional development for the National Summer Learning Association. Instead of the traditional model in which children who failed a grade get sent to summer classes, she adds, summer learning should be about fun, with a lot of hands-on, project-based activities.

“[It’s] being able to utilize summer to bring in new and innovative ways of doing things, having it really be a place to discover,” Espada says.

Other hallmarks of effective programs are a high daily attendance rate, small classes—a 1-to-8 teacher-student ratio is best, according to Espada, and can be achieved through using mentors as well as teachers—and provide at least 150 hours of programming. Plus, activities should be structured to each student’s needs and provide for parent involvement.

Access for children in low-income neighborhoods is especially critical in Chicago. A case in point: Marsha Eaglin, CEO and founder of the organization Impact Family Center, doesn’t have enough computers for the Center’s day camps in Roseland and Englewood.

“That’s a big challenge, being digital-based. You have to think about the low-income areas,” Eaglin says. “We have to have the computers. We have to be able to pay our Comcast bill for the Internet. We may have a library, but it has four to six computer stations for the entire community.”

At the day camps, students design banners and publications online, use digital cameras and work with various online applications. The Impact Family Center offers digital 17 badges to students in areas such as digital production, citizenship and cooking. 

For lower-income students, equity is an issue that stretches beyond technology. Poorer students often don’t get much academic enrichment during the summer break and, experts estimate, can lose two to three months of learning in reading over a summer.

“Higher-income youth may be going on various vacations and to museums,” Espada says. “And they tend to select books that are at a higher level in the library. They often have others at home who are reading and there’s a lot of reading material there. Sometimes those are the things that fall through the cracks with low-income youth.” 

A handful of organizations, like Mikva Challenge, provide bus passes to students who don’t have money for transportation so they can participate in programs. And DePaul University’s downtown campus offers a Summer of Learning Drop-In Center, where students who don’t have computers at home can use technology and get support from mentors.

Eaglin wishes more equipment would be donated to organizations like hers, as well as to families on the South Side. Still, she remains excited about the Summer of Learning initiative.

“I think that when children know that there’s a challenge or the bar has been raised for them to achieve something, if it’s taught and communicated in the right way, they will embrace that and they will soar,” she says. “They will try to achieve those goals of earning the badges. That’s why you need to have all the resources in place for it to continue, and support for programs to be successful.”

This report is part of an ongoing series of stories on expanded learning time. The stories are the result of a multi-city reporting project by Catalyst Chicago and its partners: EdNews Colorado, EdSource Today, GothamSchools and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.The collaborative effort was made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation, which has made More and Better Learning Time a priority in its philanthropy.

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