ince 2004, WT’s City as Our Campus has amplified student learning through remarkable real-world experiences—from urban architecture to public health to the history of U.S. immigration. More than a hundred partnerships with area leaders place students in the midst of Pittsburgh’s academic, cultural, scientific, non-profit, and business communities, where they gain understanding of important issues and are galvanized to work on solutions. The program has grown since its inception, and during the last five years has surged to include 90% of teachers and all grade levels, inspiring 300 off-campus trips and 60 projects in the last year alone. Today, Winchester Thurston is a nationally recognized leader in the field of community-based learning.

“Community-based learning is not only about what the student is learning; it’s about how the student is impacting the community and enhancing the lives of others. City as Our Campus is an example that started as a small project and grew into a whole school innovation,” states Tim Fish, Chief Innovation Officer, National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS).

“WT’s leadership is particularly strong,” adds Fish, “both in the scope of partnerships the school has built and in the program’s ‘anything-is-possible’ approach. The depth and breadth is quite diverse—from Kindergarten through twelfth grade there are so many different ways for kids to get involved. And Adam [Nye, WT’s Assistant Head for Educational Strategy and Gary J. Niels Chair for City as Our Campus] has allowed teachers to bring themselves to it—to imagine what it might mean for them to see themselves and their work inside City as Our Campus, as opposed to having to fit into a narrowly defined program.”

WT consistently cited as innovative school

When Nye took the City as Our Campus reins in 2014, he repositioned the focus of program director to one of mentorship and partnership. “My role is to help teachers develop and pursue ideas that align with their curriculum,” he notes. He created open-ended but impactful program goals, and established a continuum of intensity levels for City as Our Campus experiences, ranging from ‘moments’—typically lasting one day—to projects, units of study, and year-long courses. Working with Dean of Faculty Amanda Welsh, he also aligned WT’s professional and formative development programs with teachers’ goals for City as Our Campus, which helped teachers find more meaningful ways of engaging with the program.

As City as Our Campus became firmly integrated throughout WT, the larger educational community took notice. NAIS leaders consistently cited WT as an innovative school and sought its participation in NAIS Innovation Kitchen workshops, summits, and presentations, even documenting WT’s story for its archives. And Nye’s phone began ringing–educators from Seattle to Atlanta called asking to come and see City as Our Campus for themselves, keen to learn everything: mechanics and program design, how WT supports faculty in pursuing projects, past obstacles, funding and fundraising, board support, and project examples.

Sharing information and innovation: WT premieres coLearn Conference

Nye was thrilled to share it all. And, determined to do so more broadly and effectively, he designed the coLearn Conference. Generously funded by the Edward E. Ford Foundation, and matched by donors in the WT community, the conference debuted last June, bringing 70 participants representing 28 schools from 18 states plus Canada to WT. Attendees heard WT faculty and partners speak about best practices and program implementation models that they could adapt at their own schools, and immersed themselves in Inspire Sessions—actual City as Our Campus experiences led by WT faculty—ranging from community building at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, to environmental protection at Beechwood Farms Nature Preserve, to exploring diverse neighborhoods on an urban design challenge.

“The message was clear that community-based learning is not just about what we can take from the city and how our students can gain from the experience, but what we can give back to the city,” says Sharon Arne, Academic Dean of Staunton Hall in Staunton, Virginia, where “Staunton is Our Campus” has been growing for nearly three years. “And that for us is one of our key points: how can we give back to Staunton, how does this become important and real for students?”

Arne also relished coLearn’s array of speakers. In addition to NAIS’s Fish, they included Will Richardson, co-founder of Change School and author of Freedom to Learn; Vanessa German, Visual and Performance Artist; and John Gulla, Executive Director, Edward E. Ford Foundation.

“The speakers Adam lined up were awesome, inspiring, and spot on,” enthuses Arne. “They delved into so many conversations we’ve been having at our school…it enabled us to see how everything fits together.”

Research validates work

Conference participants were also treated to preliminary results of a three-phase research project conducted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center. The first phase, completed last year, studied the City as Our Campus program model and its implementation. It also captured student, faculty, and staff perceptions of City as Our Campus, including its value, evolution, and influence throughout the school.

“We know that we are doing great work, but it’s important that we have the evidence to prove it and communicate it to others,” declares Nye. “I thought it was important to ground it in evidence-based research done by an external partner. I also think the best way to promote the work is through publishable and shareable research. So far, the findings have validated much of the work we are doing. Our hope now is to share these findings with as many schools as are interested so they can learn from our experiences and create community-based learning experiences in their own schools, hopefully based on the work we’ve done.”

“….an impact that extends beyond Pittsburgh…an incredible evolution.”

The research, currently examining student learning outcomes, is expected to reach completion in 2019-2020, but Nye isn’t waiting until then to continue spreading the word—he is already crafting the second coLearn Conference, set for June 2019. On the agenda: more details on the “nuts and bolts” of City as Our Campus, featuring input from faculty, staff, and students; expanding the wildly popular Inspire Sessions from one to two days, and including student participation; and focusing on next steps for attendees once they return to their schools.

Nye is eager to build on the success of the inaugural coLearn Conference—to teach, to learn, to collaborate—and so is the larger educational community. “What’s evolved is a community learning point of view, and that point of view is being spread to other schools,” says Fish. “Partnerships are being built that now extend beyond Winchester Thurston and the community. What was clearly evident at the conference was that WT was learning from others, and there were other schools that were learning from WT. And so the impact that WT is having is being extended to schools around the country and around the world. I just find that an incredible evolution.”