Facing a school year like no other, The Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative builds a growing culture of cooperation
He knew it was time to rally friends at other nonprofits. He told them: We need to figure out how to help local families navigate this emerging pandemic.
Busy as they all were with their individual missions, the group compared schedules. They planned a call for March 15.
On March 13, schools across Pennsylvania shut down. Before they could even map out a response, the crisis was upon them.
Pittsburgh has long been a place of solid nonprofit and foundation partnerships -- especially in the worlds of education and family support. Since 2007, the Remake Learning network has forged innovative collaborations between school districts, universities, nonprofits and others who strive to better the lives of western Pennsylvania’s kids.
After nearly 15 years, the network has grown to more than 600 members, giving rise to a learning ecosystem that’s drawn national and international attention. Most recently, Remake Learning has launched the Tomorrow campaign to explore the future of learning innovation.
“We’d always done partnerships,” Fogarty says of his organization, a member of the network. But when COVID-19 emerged, it was clear to that this moment required an unprecedented response.
That response, born from that first March 15 meeting, has become known as the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative From an initial group of about 30 organizations, the Collaborative has now grown to include more than 70 partners.
Along the way, new relationships have been built. Organizations are sharing their expertise with one another to meet immediate needs and to tackle longstanding issues of inequity that the virus has further exposed.
Fogarty’s work began with a focus on food: Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry.
Although his organization’s mission of “creating equitable and excellent schools for all kids in Pittsburgh” never involved food distribution before, the closing of schools meant this need suddenly had to be addressed.
So the PLC began forging collaborations that hadn’t existed before. They connected with local organizations like 412 Food Rescue, the Latino Community Center and others tackling food insecurity.
“We got together and we’re like, ‘Alright, let’s feed some folks,’” Fogarty says. “What we were able to provide is some of these partner relationships that they might not have. They didn’t know all the nonprofits in the community. They have good relationships with some, but we kind of worked together to expand our reach.”
Meanwhile, the Collaborative also built a parent hotline with funding assistance from the Richard King Mellon Foundation And out-of-school-time providers, including APOST, have stepped up to focus on providing additional support to families.
After helping out with summer learning and childcare, “now some of them are considering opening up their spaces and being drop-in centers or places where kids can bring their device or be provided a device to be connected to the remote learning,” says Allyce Pinchback-Johnson, who has joined the Collaborative to help with project management and training.
“A lot of these out-of-school-time partners, they really do have a heart for the students, which is why they do the work that they do on a regular basis,” Pinchback-Johnson says. “Knowing that schools had to close so abruptly last school year with the pandemic, it kind of put people into action.”
Even those accustomed to collaboration have been surprised at the outpouring.
“I have seen more community organizations collaborating than I’ve ever seen in the nonprofit sector. I think it should be the new standard,” says Tammy Thompson, executive at Circles Greater Pittsburgh “Not only does it expand capacity and help increase resources, but it helps us be able to see issues from a perspective that we may not have looked at before.”
Thompson’s organization fights generational poverty, and her role in the Collaborative has been especially vital: Kids can’t learn remotely without devices and wifi. So Thompson has spearheaded an effort to collect and distribute donated laptops to as many families as possible.
First she reached out to the Pittsburgh-based language company Duolingo .The response was immediate: They offered about 20 laptops that weren’t being used in their office. As word spread, the Pittsburgh Penguins offered a few dozen decommissioned laptops, and financial donations came in to fund the purchase of even more computers.
They’ve given out more than 200 laptops to families so far, with more coming. “We still have Duolingo dropping by with five or seven at a time as they come across them,” Thompson says.
Meanwhile, A+ Schools has been busy amplifying the work of the other nonprofits in the group. They’ve begun sending out postcards to promote free online tutoring offered by Gwen’s Girls and a technology helpline launched by the University of Pittsburgh to help parents navigate remote learning.
The level of community response is heartening, Fogarty says — but has required tremendous coordination.
“This is really different in terms of coordinating a work plan, across multiple agencies, and really trying to drive towards a collective goal,” he says.
With the help of Pinchback-Johnson and Ani Martinez at Remake Learning, they’ve begun to “herd the cats of multiple organizations with multiple missions.” This includes coordinating with the Pittsburgh Public Schools and additional districts in the region, Fogarty says — but not waiting for them to drive the process.
“Our job is to just layer on a level of support that can then help them be better at meeting the needs of kids and families,” he says.
That support is a work in progress — a series of short-term wins that organizers hope can produce true progress for the people of Pittsburgh.
That means all of the people of Pittsburgh, starting with what Fogarty calls “the fundamental truth that the assets that exist in our Black and brown communities are rich.”
As he speaks, it becomes clearer than ever: The name Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative has a double meaning.
“It’s not just about kids learning,” Fogarty says. “It’s about us learning as a sector to get better. And we do that only by listening and centering the voices of those we serve.”
Hear from Ani Martinez of Remake Learning and other community-based leaders on how they’ve navigated the pandemic during Upswell October 14-16. Learn more at upswell.org.
About the Author
Melissa Rayworth is a writer for regional and global news outlets, and a communications consultant who works with people, foundations and companies to tease out and tell their stories across media. Her writing explores the building blocks of modern life -- how we design our homes, how we parent and pursue relationships, how we interact with pop culture in our marketing-saturated society, and how our culture tackles (or avoids) issues of social justice and the environment. As an experienced managing editor, she most recently led the digital news outlet NEXTpittsburgh.com to two years of record traffic and growth. Her work includes storytelling for private clients: Melissa co-founded and runs the storytelling service BreadcrumbStories.com. You’ll find a selection of her work at melissarayworth.pressfolios.com.