Drawing on business professionals, parents and other members of the community, a growing Tucson startup seeks to connect the public with public education.
CommunityShare allows people to sign up online to share their expertise with students and teachers. Participants fill out a profile, specify work or life experience, and how they are willing to work in schools. Teachers can then go on the site and find someone whose expertise and time commitment match their needs.
Ways to become involved include being a guest speaker, mentoring, hosting a field trip, attending a career day or working with a teacher to help them develop class content.
Bringing the outside world into the classroom helps students immeasurably, said Krista Gypton, a teacher at Walden Grove High School in Sahuarita.
“I’ve been a teacher for 16 years and the number one thing that I recognize is that any time I can connect what they need to do with something that is relevant to them, and greater than the four walls of our school, they’re on board, they’re engaged, they care,” she said.
Gypton became aware of CommunityShare after she started looking for mentors last summer for her students’ class projects.
“Every time I’m trying to do projects or bring the community in, it usually meant me getting on the phone and cold calling or sending out a kind of SOS on my Facebook,” she said. “I was blown away! This is exactly what we need.”
Giving teachers a centralized resource where they can find knowledgeable community members was part of the inspiration for CommunityShare, said creator Josh Schachter.
Working at Catalina Magnet High School, he realized how isolated the students, teachers and the school itself were from the community. Over eight years they invited about 100 people to visit their classrooms.
“But the growth of it was limited by my own social capital, my own network, and if I ever left the school, all that capital would leave with me and it wouldn’t help anyone else,” he said.
CommunityShare is a more equitable system of sharing, Schachter said, giving teachers and schools in all areas access to experts in a variety of fields.
“By democratizing connectedness and helping people bump into each other that wouldn’t otherwise, it will create ways for teachers and students to discover career pathways, academic pathways, internship opportunities and frankly, just inspiration,” he said.
On a recent Thursday morning at Walden Grove High School, Peter Crown, multimedia collaboratory producer at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, watched as students presented their finished video project.
Crown and videographer David Gaxiola had worked with the students for more than a month while they developed the concept, and shot and edited their video.
“This could have honestly been impossible without Peter, because we had an idea but we didn’t know how to branch it off, we didn’t know where to start, and he gave us the entire process,” said student Desiree Bustos. “He helped our ideas grow and become reality.”
For Crown, CommunityShare facilitates something everyone should be doing.
“It is the community’s civic and moral responsibility to do as much to support teachers and students,” he said. “I would really like to see our area and our state do more and do better in that process.”
In another classroom, Bradley Carroll, assistant general counsel for Tucson Electric Power, stood before a roomful of students.
Carroll, who specializes in state regulatory issues and worked for the Arizona Corporation Commission, spoke about Congress, the Legislature and fielded questions about bill proposals the students were working on.
“Kids sit in class day in and day out, they hear from their teacher, they read from their textbooks, but it’s great to have someone come in that has some real-world experience,” he said.
Having people volunteer their time doesn’t cost the school anything, Carroll said, and his employer encourages volunteering as much as possible.
Corporations such as TEP and small businesses can benefit from participating in CommunityShare, Schachter said.
“When folks volunteer it can actually increase retention in their jobs because they feel more satisfied by bringing their knowledge and experience to others,” he said.
More broadly, the entire experience can be seen as workforce development, Schachter said, by exposing students to careers but also working with the existing workforce and engaging those employees.
Volunteering with students has benefited Joe O’Connell, owner of Creative Machines, he said.
“I stopped seeing it years ago as something that flows from a person who has something to someone who doesn’t. It’s really a reciprocal exchange of value. I learn a lot from the kids,” he said.
Funding and growth
CommunityShare has been slowly growing over the last two years and is officially still in the beta phase of its development. It launched thanks to funding and support from several groups, including the Diamond Foundation, the Zuckerman Community Outreach Foundation, the UA STEM Learning Center and TEP.
About 300 community members and 300 teachers have signed up through word of mouth and invitation, but the site is currently open to anyone who wants to participate in the program.
After a pilot run in the Tucson Unified School District, CommunityShare is ready to take the next steps in its development, Schachter said.
Plans are to build out other aspects, such as providing professional development to support teachers on how to better integrate community partners and their skills into the classroom; and offering mini-grants.
The small grants, of about $250 each, have already been used in a number of creative ways, including by a partnership between the UA Green Academy and Tucson High School to build a working chicken coop; and a Spanish teacher taking his students to Tumacácori to learn about history and explore language.
Although the online platform is free, a plan to fund the program that has been discussed is to charge for access to professional development, the mini-grants and one-on-one coaching sessions.
“Basically a package of services that school districts could sign up for,” Schachter said, and corporations could also sponsor schools to be part of the CommunityShare network.
There’s been growing interest in Sierra Vista, Phoenix and Flagstaff, he said, and the Sunnyside, Tanque Verde and Amphitheater school districts are in talks to participate.
The big hope for CommunityShare is that not only do students and teachers benefit directly from interacting with community members, but that the public becomes engaged in education in new ways.
“One of the major things that limits public will in education is that they don’t understand what’s going on there, there’s so much rhetoric,” said teacher Gypton. “The more we can break down those walls, the more we can realize education belongs to all of us.”