GOOD Ideas for Cities: Developing Local Support for Portland's Public Schools

85% of people in central Portland have no children of school age. A hackathon uncovered ways to help connect those residents to their local school.

When a team from Wieden + Kennedy confronted its challenge to engage the community in public schools for GOOD Ideas for Cities Portland, a surprising statistic came to the forefront: 85% of people in central Portland have no children of school age. With so few residents with a natural link to education, Portland’s public schools are struggling to develop community support.

"Our research with schools and supporting organizations showed that a few simple things—books, food, clothing and people's time—could make a big difference to students," says Nick Barham, global director of Wieden + Kennedy Tomorrow. While some programs are in place to support Portland's schools, Barham recognized that developing tools to support these programs as well as others was essential to engendering growth in the education community.

The original solution presented by Wieden + Kennedy at GOOD Ideas for Cities Portland

In conjunction with GOOD, Barham set up a hackathon, inviting programmers and developers to brainstorm creative solutions for Portland's schools. Eight teams were given ten hours to create a prototype that met the goal of improving community involvement with local schools. "Mayor Sam Adams kicked off the day at 10:00 a.m.," reports Barham. "We had a great turnout—a good mix of representatives from the city and the school system, people from some of the key organizations supporting schools, and a healthy dose of developers." The hackathon also saw a boost in support from local tech companies; participants included Mozilla, The Brigade, and the Software Association of Oregon.

A concept for My Portland Schools, a Facebook app to connect Portland residents to their neighborhood schools

Steven Skoczen, also of Wieden + Kennedy, led one team that presented My Portland Schools, a Facebook app that encourages involvement through online publication. Once logged in, users identify themselves with a local elementary, middle and high school. Schools would be encouraged to become social, creating Facebook book events that would populate users’ newsfeeds, notifying them of an upcoming football game or book drive. The app encourages a dynamic conversation between the schools and residents, keeping local education relevant, even to those without school-aged children. Yet Skoczen realizes there are still a few hurdles, despite having the concept and code already formulated. "I think the biggest next step is hearing from Portland Public Schools that they're onboard with the idea, and figuring out a roadmap to actually make it happen," says Skoczen, "and figuring out who will keep the events list updated."

A concept for a Kickstarter-like portal called Give Get Go that would residents support field trips or other projects happening in schools

Another group, headed by Ezekiel Howard of The Brigade, developed a Kickstarter-like scholastic portal. Within the site, individual teachers and their schools can post projects that need funding; a field trip to see livestock at a nearby farm or a new swing set for the playground could be acquired through the donations of local residents. Such a crowdfunding tool could become indispensable for schools that have been hit hard by statewide budgetary cuts. But it's also about the storytelling factor, says Howard—it's a way of sharing what's happening inside school walls in a way that will inspire citizens to go to a school play or volunteer to paint a building. "It's like paying taxes," says Chris Jones, another member of the team. "If people would see what's happening in schools much more directly, they'd be more likely to support them."

Portland Mayor Sam Adams (right) participated in the hackathon

By the end of the day, the hackathon got at the heart of that issue: public educational systems are suffering from a major online identity crisis. School websites are often difficult to navigate and updated irregularly, while teachers shy away from overseeing blogs or other online outlets. Sam Leach, a Portland teacher who manages his own classroom blog, observes that it's pivotal that teachers maintain a professional online presence. "Engaging families means going where the conversations are already happening. Right now it's social media: Facebook, Twitter, and blogs," says Leach. "That's where families are checking in. They may not be checking into the classroom to see how their kids are doing every week, but they check their Facebook page several times a day."

"I was completely blown away by the hackathon," says Leach. "As teachers, we work in the silo of schools which is mainly made up of school faculty and parents. What was so exciting about the hackathon was here was the Portland community showing up saying we want to help."

Want to help with this idea? Contact Nick Barham at nick.barham[at]wk[dot]com

GOOD Ideas for Cities pairs creative problem-solvers with real urban challenges proposed by civic leaders. Check out the videos from our other events and stay tuned for details about future GOOD Ideas for Cities announcements. If you'd like to talk about bringing the program to your city or school, email alissa[at]goodinc[dot]com or follow us at @IdeasforCities


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