hen researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center invited student and alumnae/i comments for the second phase of their study of City as Our Campus, Assistant Head for Educational Strategy Adam Nye found the research supported what he and faculty had observed all along.

“It was affirming to hear from students and alumnae/i that City as Our Campus, and the WT experience overall, impacted their way of seeing the world and their role within the community. As I read quotes from the students, I was often struck by the way they were talking about their experiences and the language they were using—it was as though we handed them a script.”

The first phase of the research, completed in 2017-2018, studied the program model and implementation. This second phase, completed last year, examined the impact on student learning and outcomes, through the twin lens of specific projects and broad program overview.

“Students told us that City as Our Campus helped them to recognize and understand diverse perspectives, to learn about the city and the issues facing it, and to better understand their role in engaging with the community and effecting change. These are three of our programmatic goals so that was great to see,” reports Nye. “It was also inspiring to hear from students that they feel empowered—through the skills, knowledge, validation, and encouragement they received at WT—to actually do something.”

I have realized that I have a voice that I can use to advocate for people who can’t advocate for themselves.Middle School student
puzzle pieces

Philosophy and Approach

A redesign of the program in 2014 that allowed it to be more easily aligned with teachers’ goals created more growth, and results were dramatic and swift: The number of City as Our Campus projects more than doubled, from 30 to more than 60. Faculty participation skyrocketed from 30% to 90%, and partnerships soared from 50 to more than a hundred. Today, City as Our Campus is embedded from PK–12 into the core academic curriculum, both as a philosophy and as an approach that lives in many students’ experiences.

“This is possible thanks to a dedicated faculty who are willing to try new things and who are interested in project-based learning, to a school that is committed to social justice issues through our credo to ‘Think also,’ and to a curriculum that is becoming increasingly culturally responsive through a framework designed to institutionalize equity and inclusion practices,” notes Nye. “It is one aspect of a full program. So when we are talking about a student’s social justice orientation or their skill development, we are talking about the reading they are doing in the classroom to inform their thinking, the conversations they are having with community experts, the student-led discussions that are challenging their assumptions, and the expeditions into the community to introduce them to the places and spaces in their city.”

Students master content and skills and develop a sense of responsibility to the community while learning to think critically, challenge their own biases, and consider the perspectives and stories of others. And, as the research shows, the impact goes beyond students’ development of these important skills. By gaining a social justice orientation and thinking about their role within their own community, City as Our Campus experiences contribute to students’ sense of identity.

City as Our Campus has also transformed the teaching experience, says Nye, “…extending teachers’ pool of resources—not only in facilities, spaces, and tools, but also experience and perspective. It has been a learning experience for them; they are often able to learn alongside students by engaging a community mentor or tackling a problem that is new to students and themselves.”

Perhaps most profound: “It has given teachers, and their students, a greater purpose for the learning which ultimately leads to higher engagement and mastery.”

“Overwhelmingly Positive”

Studying storm water runoff and food deserts, learning about childhood disease in developing nations and devising solutions, understanding the lines of power and inequality written clearly into a city’s built environment: This is just a fraction of what students and teachers experience through City as Our Campus. But does the impact last after graduation?

Urban Research and Design was the point of inspiration for my personal investigation of a research-based and socially responsible approach to design and critical analysis of the built environment. The course engages the agency of its students in ways that are rare in education.Jonathan ‘Jono’ Coles ’16
Unequivocally yes, found the researchers. Seventy-five percent of surveyed alumnae/i report that City as Our Campus had a somewhat or significant positive impact on their passions and life after high school. These alums also characterized the contribution of their City as Our Campus experience and education to their overall WT experience as “overwhelmingly positive.”

“Does it really matter in the long run?” muses Nye, rhetorically. “We’re seeing that it does.

“If you think about our Mission and the credo of the school, and our strategic priorities to prepare students for the demands of a changing world, and then you consider the experiences students have when they are actively applying their learning to think about community issues and solutions while interacting with professionals from our community who can validate the students’ ideas, students and alums say, ‘Yes, that has contributed positively to my education, it’s impacted my academic choices and career interests.’”

Evolution…and Revolution

The evolution of City as Our Campus is a remarkable achievement, and there’s more to come, Nye promises. “This time in our world requires a shift in our thinking, and we, as a school and an organization, must adopt the same flexibility and innovative spirit that we are asking of our students—which requires us to reimagine learning and rethink time and space,” continues Nye. “I think when we discuss those priorities, we are, in part, discussing the expansion and further integration of City as Our Campus.”

I see myself now as someone who can do something about what is happening in the world. Before I thought I couldn’t, but now I know I can.Middle School student

“Our students will need to be equipped with the skills and knowledge to work in an increasingly diverse and complex world. They will need to understand how to synthesize information from multiple sources and across multiple disciplines, apply that learning to be strategic thinkers for solving big issues, to know how to collaborate and problem-solve and think critically, to engage with a diversity of people from an increasingly globalized economy. What better way to prepare students to do that then by starting now? In first grade, eighth grade, twelfth grade. The more we prepare our students to be active citizens, people who are not only aware of the issues their community faces but also have the skills and knowledge to be empowered to address those issues, the better off we will be in the future. And it has to start with a shift in the way we ‘do school.’”

Urban Research and Design was one of my favorite classes at WT and inspired me to major in urban studies at Penn. Not only has the degree provided me the opportunity to get to know the city of Philadelphia firsthand, it also allowed me to explore the ways in which public policy affects people’s lives on a daily basis. My education in urban studies has taught me how to approach the world around me more critically and engage with local politics and policy. Most importantly, studying urban studies has illuminated the ways in which systemic poverty and racism impact our society, which has inspired me to pursue a career in public interest or civil rights law.Noa Jett ’15

Insights from Teachers

[Excerpted from an article submitted to Independent School Magazine by first grade teacher Desiree Jennings and History Department Chair Dr. Michael Naragon. Following are their key takeaways for other schools considering community-based learning.]
  • It is important for teachers to truly de-center themselves from the classroom, to learn to trust students, and to think differently about the dynamic relationship between content and skills.
  • Young children have incredible capacity to learn about and grapple with topics that are often challenging and painful for adults. The ability to think critically to challenge their own biases, and to consider the perspectives and the stories of others, is a skill to develop, just like gross or fine motor skills, or reading or writing.
  • Students crave chances to talk about equity and inclusion and need well-structured and thoughtfully constructed opportunities to explore these concepts. Teachers need to be able to wade into these topics fully comfortable with their own discomfort and a willingness to explore the outer limits of their own understanding.
  • It is imperative to become comfortable with risks and discomfort in learning and instruction. It often opens space for learning that never would have been accessible otherwise.
  • This type of teaching requires teachers to be adaptable, flexible, vulnerable, and willing to become learners alongside their students.