- Cathy Lewis Long, Sprout Fund and Lisa Nutter, Philadelphia Academies Inc.

Pittsburgh’s pilot LRNG city and new city hopeful Philadelphia discuss LRNG’s 21st century approach to learning.

LRNG has launched the 2016 Fossil City Challenge to spread the movement to six new urban communities this summer through grants of up to $50,000.

In this Q&A, Cathy Lewis Long of the Sprout Fund, which has spearheaded a pilot LRNG city in Pittsburgh since 2014, joins Lisa Nutter of Philadelphia Academies Inc., which is applying for a Challenge grant, to talk about the future of learning.

Q. What is an LRNG city?

Cathy Lewis Long: To me, it’s a city that has harnessed all of its assets and resources for learning — as well as the virtually endless resources available online — to create a new experience of learning for young people.

We’re living in this incredible moment in time with the ever-expanding presence of technology in our lives: connecting us to the world, creating new kinds of careers, and radically transforming social systems like education. LRNG is an opportunity to ensure that more of our city’s young people are empowered to be contributors and beneficiaries of this digital age.

At the same time, for a learner there is no substitute to connecting face-to-face with peers and mentors who can help you connect your passions to real-world opportunities like higher education, internships, and ultimately jobs. You find these influential guides in afterschool programs, libraries, neighborhood hubs — trusted, safe places that are important in the lives of many young people, but aren’t always recognized alongside schools and colleges as legitimate places of learning. LRNG is a way to make all learning count, regardless of where or how it happens.

Q. Why is Philadelphia joining the City Challenge?

Lisa Nutter: Becoming an LRNG city will help Philadelphia create a community-wide infrastructure of learning that will build on and amplify the good work that is already being done inside of schools and in the communities outside of them. To create this new learning ecosystem and truly connect formal and informal learning, we need a mindshift — not just for young people, but also for adults who are invested in education and workforce development. LRNG will help us make that shift.

It is exciting to imagine a future in which young people are so deeply engaged in learning that it becomes a lifestyle — one in which they receive recognition for learning anywhere and everywhere. Through this process, we can foster the kinds of skills young people need to thrive in the new global economy.

The current, traditional structure that we’re all working in is not designed to create critical thinkers or lifelong learners. We owe it to kids to foster those competencies, and to prepare them today for the world they will live and work in tomorrow.

Q. What lessons does Pittsburgh have from its experience as an LRNG city?

Cathy Lewis Long: First and foremost, build on your city’s unique strengths and assets. Where is there already rich programming and deep expertise? What local industries or career tracks are most important to your future economy? These are the kinds of questions to ask your partners as you start to plan for LRNG in your city.

Along the same lines, it’s important to integrate LRNG with major local initiatives so that we can all contribute to a collective vision for the future of our young people. For example, we worked closely with Pittsburgh Public Schools so that students participating in their Summer Dreamers Academy could earn digital badges for their academic and extracurricular work.

And through our Mayor’s summer youth employment program, students earned career readiness badges in recognition of the workforce skills they developed while earning a wage at their summer job.

Q. What difference will this make for kids in your city?

Lisa Nutter: At Philadelphia Academies Inc. we frequently talk about helping young people find their life path. We use very concrete words like “careers” and “goals” to convey that concept to the young people at the high schools where PAI has implemented the career academies model.

Don’t get me wrong: employment is very important. With more than 100,000 young adults in the city who are disconnected from both jobs and school, it is imperative that Philadelphia’s educational system fosters workforce competencies to improve employment prospects. But LRNG digs a little deeper and aims a little higher.

The goal is to help young people explore their interests so that they can ultimately find their passion and their purpose in life. For me, I know that when I get excited about learning anything new, it’s because it’s attached to a purpose — something that is meaningful to me.

And what we’ve learned at PAI through implementing the career academies model is that young people are eager to learn when we’ve made what they are learning relevant and applicable to their broader interests and post-graduation goals. My hope is LRNG will ignite that excitement for Philadelphia’s youth.

Cathy Lewis Long: In Pittsburgh, we’re most excited about the potential for LRNG to unlock opportunities for young people who have the passion, talent and skills necessary to thrive in today’s creative workforce — but find themselves outside of the traditional pipeline of school-to-college-to-career.

The traditional resume or CV doesn’t allow young people to share all that they have learned and show the proof of their capabilities. LRNG gives young people a platform to showcase their whole self — the hard skills they’ve mastered through hours of dedication, as well as the soft skills they’ve developed by working collaboratively with their friends and mentors.

One example that comes to mind is the story of a high-school teen who leveled up from an LRNG program to an internship and then a job through our partnership with Steeltown Entertainment Project. Steeltown provides young people with intensive learning opportunities in filmmaking and media production.

Believe it or not, Pittsburgh is a frequent shooting location for major Hollywood productions, and there are a lot of job opportunities for people who have the practical knowledge and technical skills to be part of a film crew. Through Steeltown’s participation in LRNG in Pittsburgh, this teenager earned badges for technical skills (handling camera equipment and digital editing) and creative skills (storyboarding and directing) that qualified her for a full-fledged internship opportunity — further opening the door to real employment with a local special effects company.

Q. How is this new? How is learning changing?

Lisa Nutter: Not that long ago, access to information was limited. You had to physically go to the library, talk to an expert, take a class, or get your hands on a book to learn more about a subject or topic. As a result, knowledge retention was key: you were a “master” of a subject when you had memorized a lot of information about it.

Today, Google receives 4 million search queries per minute. An unfathomable amount of information is accessible with the tap of a smartphone. To keep up with this advancement, the skills of young people must be very different from just a few decades ago.

Young people need critical thinking and problem solving skills to know where to find information, how to synthesize it and how to apply what they have learned in a complex and constantly changing world. They also need to be able to tap into professional networks that aren’t always evident inside traditional schools.

LRNG will allow them to broaden their contacts and meet industry leaders looking for a specific set of skills.

Cathy Lewis Long: In the connected age, access to learning opportunities are expanding exponentially. Learning isn’t confined to the school day. It doesn’t stop when the bell rings or when summer break begins. Learning is happening everywhere, all the time.

This is a great opportunity, but it’s also a tremendous challenge. How can you capture all of that learning? How can you recognize forms of learning that don’t result in a traditional letter grade or credential?

LRNG puts the power in learners’ hands to curate and self-direct their own path of discovery.

Q. What does LRNG mean for cities?

Cathy Lewis Long: First of all, I think it drives home the fact that learning is a city issue that goes beyond the realm of the school district. Young people who are finding their own path through this new learning landscape need to know that the city supports them, recognizes that they’re learning in different ways, and gives them a chance to put that learning to work. It’s about equity and empowerment — inclusive innovation.

Plus, it’s a new and creative way to bring together education and workforce development so that cities can make progress toward the economic development of their communities and the economic empowerment of their people simultaneously.

And for educators in our cities — both school teachers and informal educators working in libraries, museums and after-school sites — LRNG will connect them to a national community of practice. For example, I’m so excited to see how LRNG partners in Pittsburgh will connect and share with their peers in Philadelphia, bringing two very different cities from opposite sides of the state into collaboration and co-learning.

Lisa Nutter: Philadelphia is a city of tremendous educational, cultural and corporate resources. We have fantastic universities, world-class cultural institutions and dozens of international corporations. But it is also a city of wide disparity.

LRNG is a way for Philadelphia to bridge the opportunity gap by ensuring that the rich learning opportunities that are available throughout the city are visible, accessible and inviting to youth in every neighborhood. LRNG can connect young people to community institutions and learning opportunities, and to educators and mentors who share their interests and will support their growth.

I hesitate to use the phrase “paradigm shift,” but that is in fact what LRNG is. This is a national movement. Get on it! That’s what I’m excited about.

Apply to join LRNG! Cities, organizations and programs are invited to enter the 2015 Fossil City Challenge to receive up to $50,000 in grants to launch an LRNG city in their hometown. The deadline to apply is February 19, 2016. Learn more or apply now!

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