Learning Communities: Robert Bowne Foundation Learning Strategy

Over the course of its professional development efforts, staff at the Robert Bowne Foundation (RBF) conceptualized, designed, sponsored, and/or implemented an array of professional development and capacity-building initiatives. While such offerings focused on a range of topics, all were grounded in the understanding that learning happens most effectively among a community of peers.

The Foundation’s professional development activities brought together practitioners from across different youth programs into an arena where facilitators recognized and valued the on-the-ground expertise and community-based knowledge of participating staff. As such, participants are seen as knowledgeable individuals, with something to teach as well as something to learn. The “rewards” of such participation were often multifaceted: increased engagement with and effectiveness of literacy practice, deeper involvement in their jobs and their agencies, acknowledgement of skills and expertise, both from other participants and by facilitators, as well as a sense of the larger community in which they -- and their agencies -- operate.


The idea of people studying together and learning from each other, the relationship between theory and practice (“praxis”), as well as the concept of learning from experience -- all were “in the air” in the 1980s when RBF focused on youth literacy. The progressive school movement, which began in the late nineteenth century, centered on such concepts as child-centered classrooms, learning by doing, and real world applications of knowledge. These had all lost favor in U.S. educational circles in the mid-twentieth century, and were now in the midst of being “rediscovered.” The National Writing Project (NWP), started in the mid-1970’s, sought to create a form of professional development based on a model of “teachers-teaching-teachers” and the sharing of best practices. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire influenced many adult educators in particular with his emphasis on dialogue, learning in community, and education as “conscientization” or the development of consciousness that can lead to action. These ideas deeply influenced the approach of the RBF to its professional development efforts.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the concept of building a Professional Learning Community became a widely-adopted approach to school improvement. Just prior to that period, in the mid-1990s, the U.S. Congress established the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, thereby encouraging the use of public school facilities for community use, including afterschool, summer, and weekend programs for youth. In New York City, the Department of Youth & Community Development began funding afterschool programs in both school and community settings, and The After School Corporation (TASC) set out to establish a citywide system of comprehensive afterschool programs within public schools.

Professional learning communities in the form of data-driven inquiry and study groups are currently encouraged by many school districts, including New York City. However, in some cases, these learning communities have become a mandate for a group of teachers to come together with a focus on improving student learning as defined by standardized test scores.

During this period, the OST field – which RBF has been committed to developing -- had struggled to keep community expertise “at the table” as schools expand learning into the afterschool hours. In school reform initiatives where schools and community agencies collaborate to form professional learning communities -- such as the Beacon Schools, New Visions Schools, New Century High Schools -- there have been concrete benefits to communities, including children, youth, and families.