A Network of Urban Schools Committed to Real World Learning - Real World Learning
New York, NY
Schools That Can
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A Network of Urban Schools Committed to Real World Learning

Schools That Can is the largest cross-sector network of urban schools serving low-income communities. We have regional offices in New York, Newark, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, creating a network of urban K-12 schools serving more than 75,000 students in low-income communities. Our schools are public, faith-based, charter, and private schools. We bring together students, educators, and industry leaders seeking to reinvigorate the education to employment (e2e) pipeline through real-world learning.

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We define Real World Learning as encompassing six different and complementary dimensions:

  1. Community Partnerships: Collaborations with companies, community orgs, and individual experts outside of the school to develop learning 
  2. Applied Teaching and Learning: Interdisciplinary, project based, inquiry based practices
  3. Holistic Student Outcomes and Measurements: extending beyond academic competencies to include social-emotional learning, cross-career competencies, etc.
  4. Flexible Resource Use: Not bound by strict schedules, space constraints, or traditional organizational charts
  5. Authentic Student Work: Complex and relevant artifacts presented to authentic audiences
  6. Support for a Cohesive Education to Employment “e2e” Pathway: Helping students and families navigate the pathway with bridge programs, guidance, alumni support, and career exploration

Intended long-term outcomes are to help young people find success in college, career, and life. Schools have multiple proxy measurements to support this long-term goal, including on-track graduation, development of career plans, social and emotional learning measurements (e.g., Compass tool used by Valor Schools in Nashville), and Habits of Mind measurements in projects (e.g., Da Vinci Schools in Los Angeles).

Schools that Can has created a rubric that our schools use to measure the six dimensions of Real World Learning along a continuum, from emerging to progressing to leading.

Implementation: How We Did It

Schools That Can was formed in 2005 out of a strong community need to connect schools from different sectors (district, charter, and independent). Early on, a small cluster of schools came together to create a grassroots organization that provided support and encouragement to teachers and school leaders. Schools That Can schools — all of which were high-performing and served high-need communities — shared best practices, celebrated success, and supported one another. In a few years, this community grew, and we became the nation’s largest cross-sector network of urban schools focused on improving educational outcomes. Today, notable examples of Schools That Can’s real-world learning programs include our maker programs, our annual Design Day, and the inspired real-world projects that Schools That Can schools design and implement themselves.

Schools That Can runs an annual Design Day Challenge where middle school students from across a city come together to solve a real-world challenge using a design thinking process. Students are teamed up with students from other schools to facilitate collaboration and communication skills. At the beginning of the day, a local agency presents a real-world challenge, and students are introduced to the design thinking process. Students then spend several hours working with their teams, which include young professional volunteers, to design solutions and prepare to present them to a panel of judges with expertise on the issue. In 2019, students in Newark designed a bridge that connects a new park to Newark Penn Station; students in NYC redesigned a subway station to be more tech-friendly and accessible; students in Chicago designed an outdoor plaza for the Obama Presidential Center; and students in Pittsburgh designed programming for the new MuseumLab at the Children’s Museum. 

Schools that Can schools independently implement Real World Learning in a wide variety of ways. One example is the Bronx Community Charter School’s Museum project. During the first six weeks of the school year, students spend time digging into a relevant challenge in their community. Each grade level takes a different approach or perspective to the challenge, and there is a culminating “Museum Day” where students present their work. For several years, students did a “Bronx River Study.” Kindergarteners walked down to the river and observed the animals and plants and drew pictures to practice scientific observational skills. Fifth graders built bridges to mirror actual bridges they saw along the river. Middle schoolers studied the impact of industrialization and other factors on the river.

Related Resources

Community Partners
Professional Learning

Community Partners

Partnerships are the cornerstones of our Real World Learning programs. First, we continuously build and maintain strong relationships with the leaders, faculty, and staff of district, charter, and independent schools in our cities. To do this, we regularly communicate through regional and national newsletters, programming updates, and individualized outreach to our partner schools. Additionally, we consistently update our programming and our services based on the needs identified by and with our partner schools, thus ensuring both program relevancy and ongoing school support. 

Second, many of our Real World Learning programs involve additional external partners. For example, Design Day is built around an actual challenge that partners in our cities are facing and for which they are looking for student feedback. At the challenges, corporate and community partners integrate with our teams of students and teachers to engage with students and provide facilitation during the design process; and the challenge itself is presented to students by a community leader. During presentations, students present their solutions to a panel of judges consisting of leaders and decision-makers from the city charged with addressing the challenge. 

Our other Real World Learning programs similarly integrate and involve partners from the corporate, nonprofit, public, and philanthropic communities. Our Maker Programs build on a multi-year partnership with MakerState, an organization with expertise in STEM technologies and their educational applications using maker pedagogy. We regularly collaborate with this partner to plan and co-facilitate professional development workshops. In all of our programs, we find ways to help our partners achieve their goals, such as corporate volunteerism metrics.


Our Maker Programs support teachers in integrating maker pedagogy and STEM skills and practices into their curriculum. In our Maker Partnership Program, we have worked with teachers over the course of the two-year program to integrate computer science (CS) and computational thinking (CT) within third through fifth grade elementary science. Teachers have learned how to use CS tools such as block-based programming (Scratch) to build simulations of natural phenomena — an important CT skill.

In our STEM Maker Fellows Program, teachers build the confidence and skills to use STEM and maker practices with their students in any discipline. These STEM and maker practices include using block-based programming to tell stories (supporting literacy development), explore coordinate geometry, and demonstrate science learning. Teachers also engage with 3D design using the accessible TinkerCAD platform, which is an excellent support for engaging with math and design thinking. We also support STEM integration using Ozobot robots. Teachers have challenged their students to program these robots to simulate water molecules moving through nature and into man-made systems. Finally, teachers have learned how to facilitate the use of common craft materials to engage students as engineers and inventors — creating musical instruments, prosthetic arms, vehicles, and anemometers (instruments for measuring the speed of the wind).


Annually, we track participation in our programs, including the number of students directly participating in programs and teachers engaging in professional development. We also project the number of students indirectly impacted through our teacher professional development programs. 

For each of our programs, we have a task force that is charged with determining and executing an evaluation plan. This includes pre/post surveys for students and teachers to measure growth of skills and confidence, as well as gathering other relevant metrics from schools, such as courses completed, attendance, and graduation information. We have also developed rubrics that teachers use in the classroom as formative assessments of problem-solving with a maker approach and of mastery of computer science/computational thinking skills.

Professional Learning

Our STEM Maker Fellows Program trains and supports teachers to lead in-school and after school makerspaces where students are “making” from the first session. The STEM Maker Fellows curriculum challenges students to design solutions to a variety of real-world STEAM challenges. Examples include block-based programming to simulate natural phenomena, smart circuits to create models of real-world environments, video game design, the coding of robots to accomplish specific tasks, and the application of 3D design to create new products to meet a need.

Teachers participate in professional development designed to support their facilitation of makerspaces and to leverage their group learning and sharing as a community of practice. In-person Professional Development during each academic year is complemented by ongoing support including:

  • Professional Learning Community: The program uses an online learning platform where participating teachers are able to ask questions, highlight practices that work, and share resources such as lesson plans. Teachers can access videos to receive training on specific aspects of the Maker curriculum.
  • Coaching Calls: Teachers participate in a coaching session each week to ask questions, get feedback on lesson plans, collaborate on projects, and troubleshoot technologies. 
  • Job-Embedded Coaching: A Maker coach with strong STEM and maker pedagogy expertise regularly visits teachers’ makerspaces to observe and provide feedback and support. 

The objectives of this professional learning are to strengthen teachers’ STEM content knowledge, develop the confidence and skills needed to facilitate maker activities, and to be able to use the hands-on, interdisciplinary nature of maker activities to integrate programming and STEM into all subjects. Teachers become a resource and leader for colleagues interested in using a design-based maker approach to strengthen project-based learning in their classrooms.

Schools That Can is committed to supporting cohorts of educators across our schools with our Professional Learning Groups, where we develop solutions to integrate more real-world learning into K-12 schools using evidence-based frameworks for inquiry and improvement. This includes supporting schools’ individual improvement projects.

The Future of this Work

We are proud to offer national initiatives aimed at bringing educators together to expand real-worlding learning in K-12 schools. The Schools That Can National Forum annually brings hundreds of educators and thought leaders together for panels, interactive workshops, and school study tours that highlight real-world learning. The Transforming Learning Collaborative, in partnership with Da Vinci Schools and Next Generation Learning Challenges, offers an annual conference in addition to a year-long incubator program that supports schools in their own student-centered, real-world learning work.

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