Convergence Design Lab first began as Convergence Academies, a U.S. Department of Education Investing in Innovation Fund-supported project.

The project partnered closely with two high need Chicago public schools to create and implement a whole-school reform model between 2013-2015 that supported 21st Century learning by integrating digital media and technology into curriculum, instruction, and school culture at large.

What We Learned

From the research conducted, data gathered and challenges overcome throughout the project’s 3 year innovation grant, Convergence staff gained significant insights and essential understandings about how to meaningfully address the needs of teachers and schools to powerfully make a difference in curriculum, pedagogy, and student learning.

Three key findings we discovered are:
  1. In urban high schools, student-powered production spaces that are structured to connect youth to mentors and provide interest-driven opportunities can significantly improve student engagement in learning, technology skill acquisition and social/emotional development.
  2. Professional learning communities for teachers are critical to build collaboration and confidence necessary to test out and reflect on new theories, practices and technology integration strategies.
  3. Curriculum and instructional design that begins with students’ interests, prior knowledge and experiences is key to making learning relevant, meaningful and resilient for young learners.

These key learnings inform our approaches and proposed solutions as we seek to build upon the impact of the original Convergence Academies across new venues.

The Schools

Using the parameters put forth by the federal Investing In Innovation (i3) grant, Convergence selected two high-need neighborhood Chicago Public Schools to partner with in early May 2013.

Morrill Math and Science School

  • Grades: PreK - 8
  • Number of students: ≈ 800
  • Low income: 89.7%
  • Mobility rate: 27.4%
  • African American: 39.3%
  • Hispanic: 59.8%

Tilden Career Community Academy

  • Grades: 9 - 12
  • Number of students: ≈ 300
  • Low income: 96.2%
  • Mobility rate: 36.3%
  • African American: 56.6%
  • Hispanic: 27.3%

*School Year 2015-2016 data provided by

The Model

Convergence Academies involved both a place-based learning environment and a relationship-based coaching model that activated and empowered teachers and students. There was a focus on evolving teacher practice through instructional support and curriculum unit design and a Digital Atelier was built at each school to offer students a custom, informal learning space where they could create, explore and play with diverse technology and media resources.

Resources and Support

The high-touch model of support used involved embedding staff who built a strong network of relationships linking students, teachers and school leaders to experts in digital media and project-based learning. Convergence provided formal PD in the form of summer institutes, grade-level professional learning community meetings and school-wide PD days; and informal PD in the form of coaching, planning, and co-designing curriculum. Digital media mentors (DMMs), who were contracted teaching artists with backgrounds in the media arts, worked with teachers to create and implement project-based and media-infused Convergence Units. The focus on relationship building, collaboration, and culture-building was important to shifting the climate of the school to better support connected learning and digital media pedagogy.

Professional development:

New Technology Resources:

The Digital Atelier

In partnership with Archeworks and Bretford, Convergence built learner-centered makerspaces, called Digital Ateliers (DAs), at each school to offer students a safe, creative environment to explore digital media and form supportive relationships with tech-savvy, artistic adults, called Digital Media Mentors.

Over the last two and a half years, Convergence has conducted ethnographic observations with a University of Illinois at Chicago School of Education research team, collecting evidence of the DA’s impact on student learning, youth identity development, school culture and teacher innovative practice.


Based on data collected by outside evaluator Rockman et al., UIC College of Education researchers Nathan Phillips and Rebecca Woodard, and CPS reporting, the outcomes from the implementation of the Convergence Academies model over two years in Morrill and Tilden have been overwhelmingly positive. The findings provide encouraging support for making the case that a connected learning approach in schools can not only boost traditional indicators of academic success but also improve student engagement, 21st century skills and non-cognitive factors for success in college, careers, and life.


In the projects and initiatives I’ve encountered in my time at CPS, this is by far the most successful. I think it’s largely because they [Convergence] invested in human resources, professional development, and boots on the ground support.
Convergence Academies has completely shifted my thinking about planning, instruction, and assessment. Digital media integration has substantially increased engagement because students have a more defined purpose and audience.
The units developed with our Convergence partners foster collaboration between students and teachers. The intentional design around summative assessments and essential questions helps drive inquiry and deep exploration. I now find myself thinking about incorporating digital media into all of my lessons.

Throughout the years of implementation, Convergence staff strove to make their involvement at Tilden and Morrill transparent through a working in the open blog. Get more insight into the impacts Convergence Academies had by reading the many posts written and archived.

Key Advisors

The initiative was backed by a cohort of highly successful leaders, educators, and media producers from across the country who share a passion for improving education through innovative practice, research and scholarship.

Rukiya Curvey-Johnson, Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning, STEM School Developer/Incubator, Chicago Public Schools

Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Director, National Programs and Site Development at National Writing Project

Antero Garcia, Assistant Professor at Colorado State University

Lucy Gray, Founder of Global Education Collaborative

Erica Halverson, Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison

Renee Hobbs, Founding Director at Harrington School of Communication and Media, University of Rhode Island

Kathleen Tyner, Associate Professor, Dept. of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin

Julie Keane, Head of Research at VIF International Education