An R&D Initiative to Put $20M Into Community-Based ‘Ecosystems’ of Learning

Education Reimagined looks to grow public education systems where children pursue projects outside school and “learn everywhere” in their communities.

Students in the City View Community High School ecosystem in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, work on an engineering project at Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. (Sam Chaltain and Jordan Danelz/Education Reimagined)

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The American education system is stuck in an out-moded design for learning. The change the world is going through is accelerating, and we need to radically redesign how we support children and youth. Whether it’s the infusion of artificial intelligence into our world, or the need to solve the existential problems facing our society, our education system needs to address the real question: What do our learners need to succeed today and in the future?

With paradigms shifting all around us, we must reimagine and build a modern, equitable public education system that unleashes the creativity, confidence and compassion of young people to adapt and contribute to a fast-changing, interconnected world. 

Real and meaningful change is possible, but it requires a public education system that makes learning relevant and enlivening, supports students’ discovery and pursuit of their purpose, and integrates learning throughout the community. 

A 2021 survey of youth by Transcend shows that they aren’t engaged or enthusiastic about school. Only 31 percent reported that what they learn in school is connected to life outside the classroom, and just 35 percent said they are learning about things that interest them. Only 18% of adults considered themselves very career-ready after high school in a 2019 Visions of the Future report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

The time to reimagine American education is now.

Our team at Education Reimagined is working with educators, communities, and researchers to reconceive a modern public education system that shifts the brick-and-mortar model of schooling to one built on community-based ecosystems of learning that offer deeply personalized opportunities to all students. 

Community-based, learner-centered education is an approach that promises to forge more equitable, meaningful and successful futures for our young people—and, consequently, our society. 

To help this vision become reality, we recently launched a research and development acceleration initiative. This effort is designed to catalyze the work of innovative sites, and crystallize the requirements for developing a forward-thinking public education system. This proactive step promises to expedite the evolution of public education, ensuring it meets the needs of the future. Education Reimagined aims to raise more than $20 million by the end of 2024, with the goal of creating five demonstrations of community-based public education systems over the next five years. 

At the core of these learning environments is a safe and nurturing home base, where learners develop relationships with advisors and peers who help guide them through their learning process. Learners also access learning hubs that offer vibrant, rich experiences centered on academic learning and skill-building within the context of interests and actual experiences. At field sites, they engage in real-world projects through internships and apprenticeships, allowing them to pursue their interests in a real-world setting.

In this system, children will learn everywhere — in parks, museums, libraries, businesses, homes, schools and civic centers. Learning is tangible, rooted in context, and intrinsically tied to each young person’s interests, aspirations and identity. 

This is not a fantasy. Community-based learning ecosystems are already creating new and exciting opportunities for hundreds of students in communities across the nation. A diverse group of learning communities are now leveraging this approach to transform the learning environment. Students in these sites are finding and pursuing passions that have the potential to last a lifetime.

At the brand new City View Community High School ecosystem in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, students’ home base is at the local Chamber of Commerce. They create personalized learning activities, connected to standards, through learning hubs that allow them to dive deeply into subjects that matter to them. Educators and advisors guide these community-based projects and allow students to explore topics at partnering local businesses, which are the field sites. This collaborative approach prepares them for their future, with direct access to careers in robotics, business ownership, fashion and video game programming. 

As core to the Columbus Learning Ecosystem Initiative, educators, business executives and community leaders have created interconnected learning opportunities for students to solve real-world problems in ways that prepare them for Ohio’s burgeoning economy. The state’s adoption of 5G has attracted a host of global giants like AWS, Google, Intel and others opening operations there — including manufacturing, data centers and more. Through home bases, learning hubs, and field sites, learners are granted the autonomy to identify problems and work alongside industry professionals to devise solutions.

These schools engage students directly in their interests and provide opportunities to solve real-world problems and create artistic projects they may be doing when they join the workforce. The possibilities are as endless as our imaginations. The enthusiasm and results of this approach are promising, but we need to learn more, which is what our R&D initiative is designed to do.

We have a bold vision. Many may argue it is too ambitious. Still, hundreds of educators and learners are listening and engaging in visionary conversations about the future of U.S. public education. Most exciting, however, is the growing number of educators, policymakers, parents, community leaders and others already making community-based learning ecosystems a reality for more students. 

We are at a pivotal moment in public education. If we want the best futures for our students and the world, community-based learning ecosystems must be the path forward. It is in our nature as humans to learn and grow. By supporting our young people in their educational journey, we enable them to transcend our wildest imaginations. This progressive step forward bodes well for all of us.

We know from decades of reform efforts that our education system needs a reboot with a fundamental redesign. It’s time to move forward in partnership beyond school reform to an education revolution. How exciting is that?

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