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CommunityShare in Tucson, Ariz., is set up like Craigslist or Match.com – except instead of furniture or romance, the common denominator is an interest in bringing real-life experience into classrooms.

What if volunteers had a Craigslist to help public schools?

paths to progress

CommunityShare in Tucson, Ariz., is set up like a Craigslist or Match.com – except instead of furniture or romance, the common denominator is bringing more people, and their real-life experiences, into classrooms.

Evan Grae Davis makes a living rallying support for humanitarian causes. A documentary filmmaker and activist, he often wondered how he could share his passion with the children in his community.

So when he caught wind of CommunityShare – an online platform that connects educators with professionals and others in his home in Tucson, Ariz. – Mr. Davis signed on right away.

He wasn’t disappointed. His first session, or “share,” involved coaching middle schoolers to give TED talks on issues they cared about. “I was floored by these kids, how prepared they were, how well-spoken they were,” he says. “It was such a blast.”

Davis has accepted every share request he’s received since.

Developed in 2014, CommunityShare has seen growing support among educators, parents, and community members in the Tucson Unified School District. The site is set up like Craigslist or Match.com – users create profiles, explaining in short blurbs what they’re looking for or hoping to contribute – except instead of furniture or romance, the common denominator is bringing real-life experience into classrooms. The platform is sponsored by CITY Center for Collaborative Learning, a Tucson-based nonprofit. Once connected, people come in for a share, which can last a single session or take place over weeks.

Other groups across the country have launched initiatives that seek to connect classrooms with communities. But supporters say CommunityShare has the potential to be part of a broader nationwide movement: one that reimagines US public schools as more than just places where students are fed information before their release into the world.

"People have developed really great platforms that curate educational resources," writes Karen Cator, president and chief executive officer of Digital Promise, a Washington-based education innovations group, in an email. "There are volunteer matching programs. And there are great programs that implement innovative programming in and out of school. But this is something that brings all of this together, connecting schools and students with local partners and opportunities right where they are.

"Students who have access to a network of learning opportunities and social capital have a distinct advantage," Ms. Cator adds. "CommunityShare recognizes that giving all students and educators access to that network, not those that are already privileged, is fundamental to solving the gaps in education."

The paradigm views schools as components of an “ecosystem” – one that would show children the relevance of their classroom learning in the real world while encouraging members of the community to participate, says CommunityShare founder Joshua Schachter. The goal, he adds, is to create a shift in how communities view their children's education, so that everyone feels like they have a stake in their future. 

“How do we get students to imagine futures they may not have been able to imagine until someone shared them?” says Mr. Schachter, an educator and social ecologist. “And how do we build a sense of ownership and agency among the public to invest in the future of education?” 

Bringing the public to public schools

The notion of bringing the public to public schools is at least decades old. Researchers have long seen value in getting the community to work with schools to ensure the holistic development of the child, as well as more equitable access to education. The first public schools in the country, established in New England in the 1600s, developed around the idea that educating children is crucial to a society's well-being. 

That sense of ownership has faded somewhat today, in part because of security concerns, some say – a result of fears around school shootings, kidnappings, and other dangers.  

A drive toward efficiency has also contributed to making schools more isolated than they were originally intended to be: "We used to think that the most efficient way to get people to know how to do things is to 'download' our information into their heads," says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. "We tell them the things, give them the information, they practice, and then they ‘know’ it."  

In light of the challenges facing public education today, however, some educators say there is growing room to embrace platforms like CommunityShare, which make it possible for communities and schools to strengthen their relationships.

“Everybody looks for that silver bullet,” says Carole Basile, a dean and professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in Glendale. “They look at the teachers, the leaders, the systems. They blame educator preparation. Or they look at communities, parents. ‘Are they raising kids right?’ ”

“The fact is, it’s all of it,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s everybody’s responsibility to educate kids.”

Sharing the social capital

To Ann Garn, mother of two, the value of a platform like CommunityShare lies in the connections it can help create in her children’s minds.

She recalls volunteering to help chaperone her daughter’s third-grade class on a field trip to Creative Machines, a design and engineering firm in Tucson. The trip was part of a share her daughter’s teacher had set up through the platform. The company’s owner visited the class, talked about the firm’s work, then invited the students to see the place for themselves.

“You could see the realization on the kids’ faces. ‘Oh, we want to work here,’ ” Ms. Garn says. “Just to see those possibilities in my daughter, who was 8 at the time, that was really great.”

Students are more likely to embrace important skills when classroom learning is tied to real-life experiences, research shows. Plenty of work – in education, psychology, even neuroscience – has found that helping kids feel connected to their academic accomplishments helps broaden their interests, spur creativity, and promote well-rounded development.

“When [students] get out into the community, they’re noticing and learning and proposing solutions to broader problems that matter to themselves, their families, their communities,” says Professor Immordino-Yang at USC. “They learn to act locally as problem solvers and innovators.”

Some say platforms like CommunityShare also have the potential to promote equitable education by making community resources accessible to more teachers and students in schools with little extra money for anything beyond the necessities. 

Krista Grypton, who has spent 17 years teaching in Tucson public schools, remembers cold-calling people to get them to come for a class visit. But often she was limited by her personal network and those of her students. CommunityShare streamlined that process, she says, making it possible for her to reach people from all over the city who are willing to help.

At the same time, she adds, community members who may not have thought they had something to offer suddenly realized they can provide meaningful experiences to students. Since its official launch in January 2015, more than 400 teachers at 118 schools have joined CommunityShare’s online network. More than 350 community partners – including artists, academics, professionals, businesses, and retirees – in and around the greater Tucson area have also signed on. 

“People ... don’t necessarily see themselves as solutions,” Ms. Grypton says. “It’s mutually beneficial.”

Real-life learning

In pushing the idea of engaging communities in public education, some groups have deployed trained staff into schools to connect students and teachers with community resources. Others, like DonorsChoose.org, leveraged the power of the Internet to direct people looking to put their money into a school, classroom, or project.

“There are a lot of folks that do a lot of really good work,” says Professor Basile at Arizona State. “But [those programs] are rarely a real part of how schools think about their systems and how they deploy people to really work with kids. They’re always extra and nice to have, but not very strategic.”

Some magnet and charter schools have made concepts like project-based learning central to their educational model. But with pressure to perform well at an all-time high, most school systems have homed in on applying market-driven methods to measure success. That's mostly taken the form of standardized testing. While 67 percent of the public support federal standardized testing, teachers are split on the issue, according to a recent poll by the journal Education Next.

The concern is when standardized testing becomes the sole factor in determining progress, Immordino-Yang says. Especially among schools that are struggling, educators step back from change and innovation for fear of making things worse, she says.

“People, teachers especially, are so scared right now,” notes Grypton, the Tucson teacher. “There are so many things at stake connected to student assessment scores that we’re kind of in a place of shut down in fear.”

But research has shown time and again that students learn in a variety of ways. And there are real benefits to taking risks, encouraging students to push beyond textbook learning, and helping them create real-life connections.

“We know a lot about how to educate kids well,” Immordino-Yang says. “We need to build a culture of support … and value the resources that our communities could be providing to our schools and young people.” 

Ultimately, says Schachter, his hope is that CommunityShare and others like it will get more people to buy into that concept. When schools are viewed as part of a larger ecosystem, he says, teachers become stewards of their students’ learning environment as well as overseers of test scores. The public becomes emotionally invested in the education of their community’s children. And students are exposed to possibilities that may never have occurred to them.

“That’s why it’s so valuable to have all these folks engaging with young people. You only know what you know,” Schachter adds. “If we don’t expose young people to all possible pathways we can pursue, how do we expect them to move through the world?”