The Global Search for Education: Engaging Learners with Community Inspired Projects

These experiences demonstrated to everyone involved what might be possible if an entire city was actively and meaningfully engaged in learning with students and educators.

The Global Search for Education: Engaging Learners with Community Inspired Projects

Some of the most transformative impacts have occurred when a community partner collaborates with a classroom over an extended period of time and engages their broader social network in a class project.” – Josh Schachter

Josh Schachter is the Founder and Director of CommunityShare, an education initiative that is re-imagining the relationship between schools and communities. Schachter states that many high school students become disengaged and/or drop out of school because “they don’t see the relevance of what they are learning.” School counselors (school-counselor ratio in the US is 480:1) and teachers are overwhelmed and often don’t have time or the resources to link school to future career pathways for students, and that’s where Schachter’s organization can help. CommunityShare sees real-world learning in community projects as “a critical pathway to address several interconnected problems that contribute to disconnection, isolation and fragmentation.” The CommunityShare solution takes an ecosystemic approach that “activates the existing assets of an entire community.”

The Global Search for Education welcomes Josh Schachter.

“Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have less access to informal mentors and less diverse networks of social capital than more affluent students, which can critically impact their social mobility, academic achievement and economic success.” – Josh Schachter

Josh, give us some background as to how you developed your vision for Community Share?

As a high school student, I was challenged by the workload but bored by the lack of relevance my classes had to my life and the world around me. During my junior year, I apprenticed with a herpetologist and found myself knee-deep in mud, tagging turtle carapaces in South Carolina, inspecting alligator nests for predation, and even playing a small role in discovering a new turtle species. This experience instilled in me a passion for asking big questions, experimenting with solutions and helping me see how academic knowledge was integral to wildlife conservation. Apparently, 95% of students (ages 13-19) believe opportunities for more real-world learning would improve their school. Later as an educator, I searched for ways to bring “real-world” relevance to my students. In 2006, my colleague Julie Kasper and I founded Finding Voice to support the literacy development, youth voice and civic agency of refugee and immigrant high school students in Tucson, Arizona.

We invited nearly 100 community partners into our classrooms to work on projects and/or serve as mentors based on the interests of our students. These partners ranged from social service agencies to landscape architects to city council members. These experiences demonstrated to everyone involved what might be possible if an entire city was actively and meaningfully engaged in learning with students and educators.

I began to wonder if there would be a way to reveal, connect and share the social, intellectual, creative and cultural capital in a community that was not dependent on a single coordinator. Would it be possible to create a public cloud of social capital available to all Tucson teachers and students?

My education colleagues and I spent a few years researching this idea. We sent a survey to 9,000 teachers in Southern Arizona and 84% of respondents want more engagement with community partners, but face two significant barriers: they don’t have time to find partners and don’t know where to look.

These challenges led us to build an online platform that could serve as a human library of regional wisdom and expertise. Since launching the platform in 2015, CommunityShare has connected over 10,000 students and teachers with community partners and real-world learning experiences.

What makes the CommunityShare approach to learning both important and unique at this point in time?

Ironically, as technology provides more and more ways to connect with others, feelings of isolation continue to rise. Technology and social media often provide the illusion of connecting and expanding one’s network, but the reality can be very different. The need to expand our social networks is particularly critical as our society and economy become increasingly shaped by networks. Whether we like it or not, who you know shapes one’s future as much as what you know.

As inequity grows, schools and neighborhoods become increasingly segregated across class and race. Social media algorithms reinforce our beliefs, values and existing networks—thus, the need to disrupt social networks and reweave social capital across socioeconomic and geographic lines is paramount. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have less access to informal mentors and less diverse networks of social capital than more affluent students, which can critically impact their social mobility, academic achievement and economic success.

CommunityShare is working to address these challenges by revealing the existing assets (cultural, social, intellectual, creative capital) in a community and providing pathways for communities to reweave these assets across geographic and sociocultural lines in a region. Concretely, through our online platform and offline strategies we support real-world learning experiences between students, teachers and community members that foster intergenerational relationships and a deeper connection to place. In a way, we are using technology to get people off of it.

Increasingly we are seeing online platforms focused on workforce development pathways that link students with online and in-person career mentors, facilitate internships and other real-world learning opportunities. Some platforms directly connect youth to social capital in out-of-school learning environments, while others like CommunityShare are teacher-facing and focus on expanding both teacher and student social capital.

“Some of the most transformative impacts have occurred when a community partner collaborates with a classroom over an extended period of time and engages their broader social network in a class project.” – Josh Schachter

How would you describe your greatest accomplishments with Community Share to date?

I get most excited when we hear from teachers and students how community collaborations are impacting their lives and learning.

Some of the most transformative impacts have occurred when a community partner collaborates with a classroom over an extended period of time and engages their broader social network in a class project. I remember a few years ago, a teacher, Daisy Michel, was looking to find an artist to get her students more actively and creatively engaged in learning Arizona history and culture. After learning about Community Share’s online platform, Ms. Michel created an online profile, searched for an artist and found artist Kate Hodges. Kate volunteered for four weeks with Ms. Michel’s students, making history come alive by connecting the students’ family histories to Arizona’s roots through ceramics, drawing, oral history, and music. Together Kate and Ms. Michel co-created dynamic learning experiences that increased both student engagement and class attendance. Kate continued to work with Daisy Michel’s class for two years.

We have also seen community-engaged projects help breakdown the subject matter silos that permeate the education system. Recently, high school students spent a semester learning physics, chemistry and business planning through hands-on learning experiences in partnership with a glassblowing studio.

Ultimately, CommunityShare hopes this work can support students and teachers in reaching their potential as agents of change in their community.

One of the most surprising impacts has been that two community partners,one an operations engineer at Intel and another a social entrepreneur, decided to become classroom teachers after engaging with students and teachers through CommunityShare.

Over the past four years, our educator-led professional learning community has also been one of the highlights. The teachers have repeatedly said how much they value having a safe environment to take risks, reflect, build relationships with other teachers, and develop their practice. Similarly, we have facilitated multi-day digital storytelling workshops to provide a space for teachers to reflect on their lives and practice; and by sharing their stories heighten the voices of teachers in the broader community.

How would you describe the greatest challenges you faced as an education start up and what have you learned?

As an educator, professional photographer and social ecologist, learning to launch and grow a start-up business has been very challenging. Much of my time has been dedicated to fundraising, partly due to the significant staff cost to develop and regularly iterate our online platform. Along these lines, most funding in education is directed at “tweaking” existing systems versus re-imagining systems, which has made fundraising a challenge.  In order to address this, I have increasingly spent time engaging with the philanthropic community in discussion about the future of philanthropy and systems change. In addition, we are exploring earned revenue strategies (e.g. platform license fees) so we will be less philanthropically reliant and develop a sustainable business model into the future.

Perhaps our biggest challenge has been the reality that teacher’s time and ability to take risks is significantly limited due to the pressures of standardized testing and other compliance issues. In light of this, we have invested more time and resources into supporting teachers so that community partnerships and real-world learning can be integrated into their existing scope of work versus being seen as an “add-on.”

Since CommunityShare has an online component that leads to offline, in-person engagements, tracking impact has been a challenge. We are currently developing strategies to embed an evaluation process into our online platform to increase the likelihood of receiving impact information from our users.

“Perhaps our biggest challenge has been the reality that teacher’s time and ability to take risks is significantly limited due to the pressures of standardized testing and other compliance issues.” – Josh Schachter

What’s next for CommunityShare? What are you working on now for the future?

We are building our online platform so that it can easily adapt to changing themes and pedagogical trends in education, such as the current focus on STEM and workforce-based learning. For example, our next iteration of the online platform will enable new communities wanting to use CommunityShare to turn on or off content areas based on the priorities and unique focus areas of their community.

This year we are launching an educator fellowship for teachers committed to community-engaged, real-world learning and a series of inquiry-based workshops and dialogues open to anyone in the community. The intention of this work is to create a supportive space for educators to develop their own practice and who will then become seeds to grow an inquiry-based, community-engaged culture amongst their peers and schools.

As we have shared our learnings with others, there has been increasing interest from organizations across the U.S. and globe — from Australia to Chicago to Finland — to bring CommunityShare to other regions. Some organizations are most interested in bringing our online platform to their community. Based on our experiences in Tucson, we know that the platform is most effective if local staff on the ground are already mobilizing their community to engage in schools and are developing a culture of authentic, community-engaged in schools. We are building our own capacity to support regional partners in these two efforts based on our own lessons learned over the past five years.