Summer for All: How Coordination in Dallas is Making this Dream a Reality Highlights

This summer, extra resources and extra attention are being focused on summer learning opportunities. This extra attention and funding are increasing opportunities for high-quality and coordinated summer programs that support both young people’s academic and social and emotional growth. Through the Wallace Foundation’s National Summer Learning Project, our knowledge base of how to stand up, structure, and implement effective school district and partner-led summer programs has greatly increased.

Now, in the latest report in RAND’s Summer Learning Series, Summer for All: Building Coordinated Networks to Promote Access to Quality Summer Learning and Enrichment Opportunities Across a Community, we have the opportunity to look not just at what happens in programs, but what happens around them to set them up for success.

Recently, the Forum’s Katherine Plog Martinez spoke with Sergio Garcia, Senior Manager of Learning Systems at Big Thought Dallas, one of the organizations featured in the report, to learn more about how they have built a coordinated network focused on summer and how their learning from the summer space has supported their work to integrate other focus areas, most recently social emotional learning, into their organization and network. Below please find highlights of the conversation.

A recording of the conversation is available here.

Please note the questions and answers have been edited slightly from the original conversation to improve readability.

Katherine Plog Martinez:

Let’s talk about what summer looks like in Dallas. I know that coordinated summer programming actually predates the National Summer Learning Project that started in 2008 as part of the Thriving Minds initiative. But then with the National Summer Learning Project, you all launched Dallas City of Learning. So tell me what young people will be engaging in Dallas City of Learning this summer.

Sergio Garcia:

We’re super excited that we are getting back to in-person programming here in Dallas and through Dallas City of Learning. Dallas City of Learning stands on the three pillars of access, dosage, and quality. So what does that mean? We are trying to make sure that we’re making connection in collaboration with all youth development nonprofit organizations.

For summer this year in Dallas, we’re really looking at coming back to in-person, getting people out, really making sure that we are being culturally relevant and civic-minded in the work that we do. Even in our younger age group. A lot of the partners that we collaborate with that are doing summer learning programs are trying to mitigate some of the COVID trauma that they have had. We’re seeing a lot of health and wellness being incorporated. A lot of social and emotional implementation and lesson planning and curriculum. We are being mindful and taking time out to continue to talk with our youth and communities to see where we can start to leverage our strengths, leverage their experiences, and build from there. We start with a  strength mindset and a growth mindset. We’re trying to make sure that youth are aware of what is out there for them to take advantage of, whether that’s at a museum, whether that’s in the park, or in their local community center.

Katherine Plog Martinez:

Does Dallas City of Learning happen in schools, in the community, both?

Sergio Garcia:

Yes, it’s both. We want to make sure that we are opening activities, opening spaces for youth to engage in. And so that is at schools. It is at some of the elementary schools, high schools, and middle schools because that’s easier access for a lot of our youth families.

It’s happening at community centers. It’s happening at the YMCAs that are around here. It’s even happening at some of the nature centers that are around here in Dallas. We’re really trying to activate different spaces for learning.

Big Thought is also known for one of our programs called Creative Solutions that deals with adjudicated youth in the judicial system. Libraries are also a huge partner. We’ also have programming happening there. It’s this idea of how we can really look at a space in place. What are the learning opportunities that can happen?

Katherine Plog Martinez:

This is really a coordinated network focused on summer. I wanted to take us to some of those success criteria, some of the things that we know help networks succeed in this type of work. Let’s start at the beginning: setting a vision. So whether it was in 2008 with those first efforts, or as you all entered into the national partnership for summer learning. What did it look like? What was the process for setting a collaborative vision? And what does this process of engaging the community and continually setting a collaborative vision look like for you?

Sergio Garcia:

It is a large amount of work. It needs to be mindful and intentional. We started out with asking our city and asking our school district here about where do they feel are the heat spots? Where are under-resourced communities? We looked at things like food deserts. We looked at things like resource deserts and health and wellness deserts. That was our first indicator on where we wanted to structure our focus, structure our strategies. When we got an idea of what those looked like on the map in Dallas, it reinforced that these are the southern sectors of Dallas, such as Fair Park area and Pleasant Grove.

We then convened partners and we broke bread. We had lunch. We start to build trust. We start to build some sort of relationship that really says okay, these people are here for us. We want to leverage our relationships and our strengths along with your strengths, so we asked them what they felt that their strengths are. When we can understand what each other’s strengths, and resources, and experiences are, then we can start to map out what that collective effort impact can be.

A big part of what we continue to do is try to break down silos. That’s how we came up with our three pillars of access, dosage, and quality. How can youth access more opportunities? How often with the dosage, how often can they go from one, maybe something that’s happening at the school, to what a community partner is having, what the library is doing? How can we make that dosage happen? And quality. That’s where Big Thought really leveraged our relationships and our support from the Wallace foundation is through professional learning opportunities, and SEL foundations, and giving our partners those same tools and skills to incorporate SEL, to incorporate and build capacity in their frontline staff. We do these things really mindfully as we continue to check in with them, as we continue to build the relationships with them.

That’s how we really started to kind of structure our ecosystem, structure our efforts. And I use the word ecosystem because we have to be mindful that all ecosystems change. They grow, they can expand, they contract. We saw it contract a lot in COVID. And now it’s starting to expand again.

Katherine Plog Martinez:

The three big partners that came together to kind of form the backbone and launch the partnership you mentioned were Big Thought, the Dallas Independent School District and the city of Dallas. Can you discuss what collaborative leadership and coordination has looked like. How has that ebbed and flowed throughout the course of the partnership?

Sergio Garcia:

I still take a grassroots approach to collaboration and coordination. This involves connecting with our city council people to see what they are feeling and what are areas they want support. Our councilmembers know these spaces and places better than I would. Likewise with the schools, it’s talking to not only the teachers in the schools, but also the administrators, the principals, even the counselors. We’re fortunate enough to have a a community engagement person in many of our schools here. They know the actual brick and mortar locations that they can help support us with. They know who those organizations or even businesses who are willing to support as well.

It’s really taking a continued grassroots effort mindset by talking to our city councilmembers, talking to the schools, principals, administration, and counselors, and community engagement people. They’re talking to the families and to the youth in these spaces and places. When we have an idea through their lens of how we can support each other’s work, that’s where we’re continuing to see where our impact needs to be and if we need to shift.

Katherine Plog Martinez:

Can you talk a little bit about how you’re using data, how you’re collecting data? What that looks like for Dallas City of Learning.

Sergio Garcia:

We have an extensive process that we go through for our data collection. We are fortunate to have a relationship with Southern Methodist University and their Center of Research and Evaluation. In the summer, we do a lot of survey work. We do a lot of observation work as well. Those surveys are multi-layered. We have surveys for youth, frontline staff, leadership, and caregivers. We’re trying to be as mindful with the questions that we ask.

We have a cohort every summer that we call the neighborhood resource initiative. And these organizations are about 30 or 40 organizations as I mentioned who are all over Dallas. They help us administer those surveys. We then synthesize all of that, all those three different types of surveys to share back out with them.

We do a big share out of their impact usually in January, so we stop our data collection sometime in August. We go through it all in the fall and winter, and then we do a preliminary share out in January on the impact that they’ve had in the summer. We’ve been doing that for the past seven years now. We’re really starting to see some longitudinal data impact that is happening specifically on academic achievement. We now understand that when a youth participates in one summer, it’s good. Two summers is better. And two summers and beyond, we’re seeing that summer learning has had an impact on academic achievement. We’re also starting to see how this is affecting the value and really elevating the value of our out-of-school time providers that they have just as much importance in a young person’s education and learning as they do in formal education in their schools.