Chicago’s Path to Become a ‘City of Learning’

Chicago’s 400,000 public school students are shuffling back into classrooms this week for ice breakers, syllabus rundowns, and the first lessons of the school year. For some, though, the learning never really stopped in the summer months, thanks to the thousands of sports camps, coding academies, art lessons, and other programs available to children in the city. Similar after-school programs are key to keeping kids off the streets year-round—but that’s only the case if the students are able to access the programs designed to serve them.

Nearly four years ago, in an effort to help connect students to extracurricular offerings, Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched the Chicago City of Learning online platform (CCOL). It’s something of a one-stop shop that allows kids to easily search through hundreds of out-of-school programs based on their interests.

The platform’s simple interface and playful designs belie the breadth of the challenges that its creators hope to tackle.

“We need to begin to get smart about the out-of-school ecosystem,” says Nichole Pinkard, founder of the Digital Youth Network—which built and runs the platform. “And the only way to do that is knowing the relationship between program offerings and participation.”

Behind the scenes, Pinkard hopes that the trove of data collected from CCOL will help ensure that even the most vulnerable kids are getting the same out-of-school learning opportunities as their peers in neighborhoods with more resources.

As The Atlantic reported in 2015, the divide in extracurricular participation between high- and low-income students has been growing nationwide since at least the 1970s—and Chicago is no different. In one of America’s most segregated cities, where black and Latino students make up 80 percent of the student body—almost all of whom attend majority-poverty schools—out-of-school programs are especially important in filling in gaps left by the lack of funding and resources. In fact, it was only last week that Illinois approved a “historic” school funding overhaul to address the system Chicago advocates have long accused of “separate and unequal” funding. And where violence often erupts inside high-poverty neighborhoods, these programs also play a crucial role in providing kids a safe space.

Until recently, there was little data on Chicago’s inequity at the city scale, Pinkard says. Her nonprofit offers extracurricular activities year-round, but “even for our own kids, we really had no idea what they were doing once they left us,” she says. “So we realized that there was this black hole.”

Now, however, with 86,000 users and some 26,000 online and face-to-face programs listed, CCOL is finally offering researchers a glimpse into that void. DYN partnered with the public school system in 2014 to sign kids up, giving researchers the chance to break data down by demographic, school, grade level, or even ZIP codes.

Screenshot of the Chicago City of Learning platform. (Chicago City of Learning)

Results from a preliminary study in 2015 suggest that the solution isn’t as simple as throwing any program into an underserved neighborhood. Pinkard and her former colleagues at DePaul University and at the University of Colorado, Boulder, analyzed data for 3,400 CCOL accounts, limiting their sample to only students who lived within the limits of Chicago and who have earned at least one “digital badge” for participation. (She says the data is only analyzed in aggregate to maintain students’ privacy.)

When they mapped nearly 4,000 programs against the income level of each ZIP code where students lived, they discovered a mismatch between the things kids wanted to learn and the programs they could access. Sports programs were the most widely and evenly distributed, yet a third of keyword searches, made by roughly half of the users, were related to technology skills. And higher-income neighborhoods had better access to offerings in almost all other categories outside of sports, including technology, career building, and science.

When the researchers used Google Maps to determine public transit options to all the programs in each ZIP code, they found what they described as learning deserts: areas where out-of-school programs were few in number, and where kids had limited transit options to get them to the ones closer to the city center.

Programs listed in the City of Learning of Platform have increased over the years, but remain unequally distributed among different ZIP codes. (CCOL 2016 Report/Digital Youth Network)

It’s too early to use the data to enact any policy changes, but DYN has made some smaller-scale changes on its own. Take, for example, the lack of coding programs, which CCOL data shows are generally more abundant downtown and on the north side—areas with more higher-income families.

“We even did a comparison on the west side of two different neighborhoods, and the under-resourced neighborhood had no programs, while the resourced neighborhoods had three,” says Sybil Madison-Boyd, ‎a program director at DYN. Convincing the Chicago Transit Authority to offer free rides outside of school hours has been a particular challenge for education activists. “Out of that grew the idea that, well, maybe we should take programs to them.”

Two summers ago, the organization rolled out “mobile maker vans,” equipped with dozens of computers, wireless technology, and plenty of mentors to help kids explore their interests. The vans, which were leased, made stops in communities with few coding and gaming programs, as well as to public housing developments. And with sponsorship from Best Buy, the organization bought its first van to expand the program year-round.

Looking ahead, as the data becomes more robust, Pinkard hopes to shape the research into information that the city and individual organizations can use to create what she calls a thriving learning ecosystem, where programs within any community vary in format, duration, topic, and accessibility. And, as often comes up in the topic of big data, the team sees potential for machine learning to help researchers refine the platform so that it can generate better program recommendations to kids.

For now, DYN releases its data to partner organizations and will soon run workshops to help organizations be more accurate and detailed in writing their program descriptions—which may one day feed into some sort of algorithm.

“One of the enduring problems discussed among informal educators was that it was hard for kids to discover programs they would be interested in,” Madison-Boyd says. “There had never been one place with a repository of all the possible opportunities.” And certainly, no one has mapped them.

CCOL is considered the first of such city-wide effort in the U.S., and it was also one of Emanuel’s earliest embraces of technology as a solution the Chicago’s urban challenges. Today, cities like Pittsburgh and Dallas have emulated its efforts.

Madison-Boyd says it’s not uncommon for some families to spend tens of thousands of dollars per kid each year on extracurricular activities, making it a luxury that many can’t afford. “Yet we have so many partners with high quality programs and empty seats, with funding to provide them for free or little cost,” she tells CityLab. “We really want to ensure our under-resourced families have a way to get their kids connected to interesting programs—not just programs of convenience.”