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Innovation Yields Big Results for the National Archives at Philadelphia

by on January 24, 2014

Based on an article by V. Chapman-Smith, Special Assistant to National Education at the National Archives at Philadelphia

The National Archives at Philadelphia presents a wonderful case study on how innovation can benefit NARA and at the same time make a deep impact in the local community.  All along the way, however, it has involved testing new strategies and having the flexibility to change approaches as needed.   V. Chapman-Smith recently discussed how it all came about.

Goal of Improving Education

The National Archives in Philadelphia started with a goal of building a meaningful presence in education, one that could produce strong outcomes for students and schools, while at the same time, contribute to the use of history assets, particularly National Archives holdings.

Listen to Mayor Michael Nutter personally thank the National Archives for its leadership in this effort:

Taking a Partnership Approach 

NARA at Philadelphia recognized that they could not do anything meaningful alone, given the immense size of Philadelphia’s education system (over 200,000 students) and problems within the school district.  In 2004, they initiated a partnership with several other institutions to bring the National History Day (NHD) program back to Philadelphia after a 25-year absence in the city.  The partnership had no infrastructure or funding in the beginning, but the partners found ways to raise the funds among themselves.  By working together, they were able to develop a program which:

  • Eliminates the economic barriers that prohibit broad student participation in this distinguished program. (84% of students in the public schools are from low-income families.  There are also high numbers in the parochial schools.)
  • Provides full scholarships to the students to advance to the state level (enough funding for approximately 80 students), as well as similar support for any of the teams that make it to the national competition.   (They have had several.)
  • Provides other supports to schools, teachers and students with direct services, supplies, free access to cultural collections and institutions (fees waived), workshops, transportation to the regional competition and a no-fee regional competition.

They also helped a demonstration public school, Constitution High, where students are required to do the NHD program for 3 out of the 4 years they are there, to build out its history-based curriculum.

Listen to students discuss what participation in National History Day has meant to them in the new NHD Philly program video:

NHD Philadelphia started with 175 students.  Today, the program serves over 1,000 students each year throughout the city, including in under-performing public schools.   The partners’ combined efforts have brought over $2 million in resources to the schools and produced outstanding education outcomes.   The results at Constitution High have been outstanding… a 97% graduation rate, with 100% college acceptance rate.

Further innovation using Web 2.0 and Social Media

In fall of 2013, the program felt challenged to find more funds for its 2014 Competition.  Encouraged by Maria Marable, NARA’s National Education Director, NARA’s education operation in Philadelphia, together with its partners, decided this time to turn to social media to increase public outreach and to share their story.   Two partners, The Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries and the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League, lead the infrastructure development for the use of a crowd-sourcing campaign with NARA supporting content development.   Together they also determined that if they were to exceed their initial goal, any additional money collected would go towards student scholarships.  The NHD program built out a Facebook and Twitter presence, upgraded their website, and built a YouTube channel.  A young documentary filmmaker, Robert Chapman-Smith, produced (pro bono) a new program video.  They succeeded!! Everything was up and going just after Thanksgiving.

Beyond fundraising, NARA Philadelphia is discovering social media helpful in getting public feedback about NARA’s efforts through its National Education Program operation, as well as that of its partners.  It’s also enabling them to more easily learn from others who are doing similar work and to hear from communities facing similar challenges.

Watch the “What is National History Day?” video, produced by NHD Philly students when the program began:

Through creating partnerships with like-minded organizations, NARA at Philadelphia has accomplished far more than it could have alone to contribute to the education of Philadelphia’s students.   They have seen Philadelphia’s National History Day program take off and blossom.  Innovation has not been an end unto itself; but done right, it has been about trying out new ideas and approaches that have the potential of being a win-win situation for all concerned.


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