(Tribune News Service) -- From hands-on circuitry projects for kindergartners to "maker spaces" inside local museums, this former steel town has quietly emerged as a national model for supporting fresh approaches to technology-infused education, especially for young children.
The energy and innovation flow from a close-knit network of philanthropists, educators, technologists, and advocates who prize collaboration over competition. National experts are smitten with the approach.
"Pittsburgh is absolutely a leader when it comes to building a learning ecosystem for the 21st century," said Constance M. Yowell, the director of education at the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is supporting the city's efforts. Ms. Yowell described the city's active funders and universities, as well as the willingness of unlikely partners to work together, as "core ingredients for really dynamic learning opportunities."
Take, for example, "Message From Me," a new app for preschoolers developed by Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children. The project centers around a simple digital tool, extensive training for the adults who will be using it with children, and outside-the-box outreach that will soon include weekly programs at a local barbershop.
Undoubtedly, there are challenges: Bringing the 25,000-student Pittsburgh public schools into the digital-innovation fold has been difficult, raising questions about how broad the benefits of the city's efforts will be. Large pockets of southwestern Pennsylvania--including Pittsburgh's devastated Homewood neighborhood, where Message From Me is being piloted most extensively--are profoundly disconnected from the city's overall renaissance.
And the lack of a robust broadband and wireless infrastructure is as much a problem here as in other parts of the country.
Nevertheless, Pittsburgh has been flooded with awards and money for its efforts.
In February 2013, the MacArthur Foundation awarded the city $500,000 to join Chicago and New York City in creating a "hive learning network" to support nontraditional youth programming.
In April of last year, on the strength of its Kids+Creativity Network, which serves as the connective tissue for more than 200 organizational partners, Pittsburgh became the first city in the country to receive a Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, given to groups that "have broken the mold to create significant impact" in public-policy areas such as education and health care.
And in December, local officials announced plans to create a "learning-innovation playbook" to help other cities undertake similar work. The idea for the project came from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
At the center of it all is Gregg S. Behr, the executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Grable Foundation, a family philanthropy with a $300 million endowment.
The clean-cut and plainspoken Mr. Behr cites two unexpected sources of inspiration for the city's culture of collaboration: the collapse of its steel and manufacturing industries. And Mister Rogers.
The latter--the late Fred Rogers, the gentle, cardigan-wearing creator of the influential children's television show bearing that name--is one of Pittsburgh's most beloved local icons. Mr. Behr and others describe their work as the digital-era equivalent of Mr. Rogers' use of TV to promote healthy child development.
The cratering of Pittsburgh's manufacturing base, meanwhile, led to tremendous job and population loss, threatening to unwind the fabric of the city.
"Everyone knew we had to think differently if we were going to become a viable community again," Mr. Behr said.
For the Grable Foundation, long focused on improving educational opportunities in the city, awareness of the need for a new approach began to crystallize in 2007. That's when, said Mr. Behr, he began hearing a troubling new refrain from teachers, librarians, museum officials, and child-care providers across the city: "'I'm not connecting with kids the way I used to connect.'"
Hoping to learn more, Mr. Behr began hosting informal discussions over pancakes.
Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of the Sprout Fund, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that provides financial and other support to education-related groups, said the breakfast group came to focus on a simple question.
"We have two centers for excellence in Pittsburgh: early childhood and technology. What might be possible if these two sectors bump against each other?" Ms. Lewis Long said.
Network Takes Hold
What emerged was the Kids+Creativity Network, now anchored by groups including Grable, the Sprout Fund, Carnegie Mellon University, the Pittsburgh Children's Museum; the city's public libraries, the Pittsburgh Technology Council, a trade association, and the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a public administrative agency that provides support to 42 area school districts.
In December, about 250 of the network's current members, meeting in a downtown theater, talked about their recent accomplishments:
- Digital media labs and video-game-design opportunities in dozens of the suburban and small-town schools outside of Pittsburgh proper;
- Maker spaces that encourage hands-on learning and exploration in the region's museums and libraries;
- Digital-badging efforts for recognizing children's learning over the summer and outside traditional classrooms;
- And the pride and joy of both Mr. Behr and Ms. Lewis Long: the Children's Innovation Project, a collaboration by a classroom teacher, a local artist, and a university robotics lab that led to development of simple wooden "circuit blocks" and related instructional materials meant to teach children the basics of electricity and cultivate their curiosity.
"Pittsburgh is an exemplar of what can happen when cities come together across disciplines," Ms. Lewis Long told the crowd.
Learning App in Action
The fruits of such cross-sector collaboration--and their still-limited scope--were on display last month at the Crescent Early Learning Center in the Homewood neighborhood.
Inside a converted elementary school, 255 youngsters, all in prekindergarten classrooms run by the Pittsburgh district, now have access to Message From Me, the iPad app developed collaboratively by the university robotics lab and the decidedly low-tech early-childhood-education advocates.
When Crescent teacher Renee M. Hughes asked Corey Moorefield if he wanted to send his mother a message using the app, the 4-year-old's face broke into a huge smile.
Corey found his picture and name on the screen and tapped. Then he found the picture and name of his mother and tapped again.
Ms. Hughes and one of Corey's classmates used the iPad to take a picture of him in the classroom's kitchen play area, where he had been making a pretend meal.
After approving the photo, Corey pressed a button to record a silly message: "I'm making a pizza with dressing, cheddar, and hot dogs on it, too."
A crowd of children listened and giggled as Corey played back his message. Satisfied, he pressed "Send."
"I like that parents are able to see what's actually happening in the classroom in the moment," Ms. Hughes said later. "So often, they ask their children after school what they did, and the answer is 'I don't know, I can't remember,' and that's it."
The purpose of the app is to promote better, more regular communication among children, their families, and their teachers and caregivers. Experts in the early-childhood field say such "high-quality talk" is key to children's development.
The Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children could never have developed such a digital tool on its own, said Michelle Figlar, the group's executive director.
But if developers had created the app without input from a group such as the PAEYC, she said, it likely would have been "just another toy," more focused on whiz-bang appeal than developmentally appropriate learning goals.
So far, the tool's distribution has been modest, reaching roughly 2,600 children in fewer than 200 classrooms. The involvement of Pittsburgh school officials in supporting Message From Me at the Crescent Center--and, soon, Homewood's main public elementary school--is a big step; until recently, the district's involvement in the city's cross-sector digital-learning efforts has been marginal, limiting both the breadth and the depth of the impact that projects like Message From Me can have.
It's not for lack of interest, said Scott E. Gutowski, chief of information and technology for the Pittsburgh public schools.
"The ability to be entrepreneurial goes against what our institutions have been trained to be," Mr. Gutowski said. "Most urban districts are a big ship, not a nimble boat." But nearly everything else about Message From Me's genesis and evolution speaks to the way Pittsburgh's otherwise collaborative ecosystem helps nurture unorthodox partnerships.
The PAEYC and Carnegie Mellon's CREATE (short for Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment) lab came together through the Kids+Creativity Network. The Sprout Fund provided $15,000 in seed money to get the project off the ground. Once Message From Me was up and running, Mr. Behr of the Grable Foundation, who had been part of the project planning from the beginning, stepped up with $100,000 and helped attract more than $250,000 in corporate funding from PNC Bank, in Pittsburgh.
Now, the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning is financing expansion of the project to neighborhood locations such as Willy Tee's Barber Shop, where the PAEYC also runs a weekly "raising readers" group for parents.
Again, it's all about partnerships.
"School systems can be hard to deal with," said Ronald T. Hankins, a master barber at Willy Tee's shop. "Any time you can bridge those gaps, it's a wonderful thing,"
Despite all the good will, obstacles remain.
Some teachers at the Crescent Center haven't been able to consistently use Message From Me because of the building's spotty wireless network.
And forging strong connections between home and school in destabilized communities such as Homewood, where nearly 60 percent of households live on less than $25,000 a year, will take more than an app. For example, Myra Williams, Corey Moorefield's mother, said when reached by phone that she never received the message her son sent using Message From Me. The school did not have her new email address, Ms. Williams said, and was not sending the messages to her phone.
Such challenges are why it's critical to involve public schools in efforts to redesign children's educational experiences, said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a Boston nonprofit that advocates for expanded learning time.
"The one institution that is constitutionally required to serve all students needs to be the one that is integrating these innovations and community partners effectively." she said.
But overall, Ms. Davis, like other national experts, enthusiastically praised Pittsburgh's focus on cross-sector coordination and collaboration.
It's an approach that many hope to see spread.
"We're very excited by what's happening in Pittsburgh," said Thomas A. Kalil, the deputy director for technology and innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is encouraging development of the "playbook" that city leaders will develop this spring.
"Most hard problems are not solved by a single institution."
Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
©2015 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.