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Rival school districts learn to cooperate on fixes for kids

Abby Proch
October17/ 2016

Proving academic proficiency to employers can be as simple as flashing a diploma, but getting those employers to understand a high school graduates’ less traditional skill sets can be tricky.

Guided by Remake Learning and LUMA Institute, Avonworth and Charters Valley school districts are exploring digital badges as a way to certify skill sets learned outside of standardized testing and classroom settings.

These “badges,” which are tracked on a digital app, represent proficiency in skills like coding and digital fabrication with hopes that they will soon be recognized in the workforce, says Sunanna Chand, learning innovation strategist with Remake Learning, a network of educational professionals encouraging lifelong learning.

This Avonworth and Chartiers Valley duo as well as six other cross-district teams of educators are working together on a nine-month project to improve their educational services.

The Expanding Innovation Project will help educators improve in areas such as professional development, sustainability and early childhood development, says Chand.

Year after year, area school districts work independently, even competitively, to achieve their greatest potential, but this year, some innovative educators are breaking from the norm.

“This is not your typical professional development. This is not your typical experience for district leaders to get their hands dirty with each other,” says Chand.

With LUMA Institute’s direction, the seemingly dissimilar, even rival districts will collaborate to find fixes that use design thinking.

Teammates from Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children and Fox Chapel Area and Woodland Hills school districts joined with the purpose of using digital platforms to reach parents of infants.

They’re tapping into social media like Instagram to encourage parents to talk to their babies as an early step in childhood education, says Chand.

They’ll see which platform works and which doesn’t and go from there, she says.

These series of low-risk “small bets” will be measured for success each time, rather than rolling out big changes and waiting for results, says Bill Lucas, co-founder of and principal designer at LUMA Institute, an education and training company that encourages human-centered design.

Those baby steps, or “bets,” are part of design thinking, in which people devise their own human-centered solutions by looking carefully, understanding deeply and making resourcefully, says Lucas.

“If we leave all the work of innovation to the experts, we’re in trouble as a society,” Lucas says. “We believe really strongly to equip more people to be more innovative more often.”

Duquesne City Schools, a 400-student district with 100 percent receiving a federal free lunch, and Elizabeth Forward, a suburban district with 2,400 students, are teaming up on Fab 4 All, a high-tech initiative focused on developing tech skills with a fabrication lab.

McKeesport and Woodland Hills school districts identified several transient students who shift between the two districts and found a disconnect in the math curriculum they want to close.


Other teams include Propel Schools, Hopewell School District and Quaker Valley School District.

Lucas calls the move away from competitiveness and toward teamwork for student-centered solutions refreshing and invigorating.

The Expanding Innovation Project launched earlier this month and culminates in May 2017.

Abby Proch