In 1968, several of America’s big cities were ravaged by rioting. When city leaders in Philadelphia looked for ways to avoid the chaos that had befallen Detroit and Chicago, they concluded that discouraged young people had given up on education as a path out of poverty–and they decided to do something about it. City government, civic and business leaders joined together to create a non-profit organization, Philadelphia Academies Inc., to bring enrichment programs into the public schools. PAI is still operating and producing good results.
Today, there’s no rioting in the country’s inner cities, but the problems of poverty and unemployment are no less acute. Once again, Philadelphia’s leaders are looking for solutions–this time to prepare the city’s residents for the jobs of the 21st century. And, once again, people from government, business and civic organizations are coming together in search of solutions.
The city’s new initiative is Digital On-Ramps, a project that is jointly managed by PAI and a small committee of other non-profit and government organizations. The initiative, which has extensive city government involvement, aims to use digital technologies to help provide comprehensive education and workforce training to Philadelphians from ages 14 to 65. The program was announced last summer and updated today. The goal is to create online and mobile education and training opportunities including youth and adult literacy and math programs, GED preparation, job search support and training in digital skills. “We don’t talk about this as an education initiative. We talk about it as an employment initiative and part of a broader economic development strategy,” says PAI President Lisa Nutter. (She also is married to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.)
Philadephia’s approach to solving big complex problems by collaborating across the social divides provides a model for other cities to follow when they take on such challenges. IBM helped the initiative get off the ground by sending a team of six executives in its Smarter Cities Challenge program to Philadelphia for three weeks in December to help the mayor and other city leaders create a roadmap for getting Digital On-Ramps off the ground. The IBM team formally presented their recommendations to the city today.
Nutter started to think about developing a digital strategy for education and training more than a year ago after she attended a conference focused on efforts to bridge the digital divide in emerging nations. She recalls sitting in her office talking to the mayor’s chief education officer and the head of the Philadelphia Youth Network, a job training organization, and discovering that the others had been thinking some of the same thoughts. That was the spark that led eventually to Digital On-Ramps. Other organizations got involved, as well, including the Urban Affairs Coalition, which unites government, business, neighborhood organizations and individual citizens to improve the quality of life in the region and promote economic opportunity. “The cross-institution approach helped immensely. We got a lot of diverse perspectives,” says Nutter. “It made the conversation more complex but helped us understand what the challenges would be.”
An encounter with a young woman, Kimberly Pham, who had struggled to educate herself, helped Nutter understand that many of the city’s education and training programs had to be integrated using digital tools. The two met at a meeting focused on youth development when Pham approached Nutter and expressed interest in an internship at PAI. She spoke of her frustration at navigating a path through the education system after she dropped out of high school. It was difficult to find out about education and training opportunities and she had to fill out similar forms and take assessments over and over again. Pham eventually got her GED and is now enrolled in college, but Nutter understood that many people face the same hurdles–and many of them don’t have the determination of this young woman.
So, when Nutter and others began developing the Digital On-Ramps program, she pressed for integrating the diverse elements of the education and training system. One element in the works is a central database of information about each participant that could be used for all of the programs. Another is a system of certifications that demonstrate a participants competencies to prospective employers.
Some of the recommendations from the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge team dovetail with Nutter’s early ideas. They include integrating the program with other city departments such as social services and economic development; and using technologies to measure the initiative’s success, analyze participants’ progress and make learning roadmaps that are individualized and transferable from one program to another.
Digital On-Ramps is still in its early days, but, thanks to a willingness of Philadelphians to work together, the city’s people will have a better shot at preparing themselves for the opportunities–and challenges– of the 21st century economy.