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Voices: Empowering educators to innovate

Charter School Growth Fund partner Alex Hernandez says it’s time for education to embrace a start-up mentality and focus on creating something better versus fixing what’s broken.

We are entering an era of unprecedented education innovation, fueled by the promise of ubiquitous access to high-quality personalized learning, the emergence of radically different school models and a renewed focus on rich experiences that stimulate “passion, purpose and play” for our children.

I recently spoke with a teacher who was frustrated that educators never seemed to have a voice when it came to new education ideas or reforms.

To his surprise, I said, “Voice is overrated. You are this incredibly talented educator. You can build something better. What do you need to create the future of learning?”

Colorado is full of amazing educators who can lead the next era of education innovation:

  • Before Khan Academy, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams pioneered the flipped classroom at Woodland Park High School.
  • Adams 50 school district is in its third year of implementing a competency-based system where students move at their own pace and make progress based on demonstrated mastery, not seat time.
  • A new charter school in Denver, Rocky Mountain Prep, is trying to increase personalization for its elementary students during its “power hour,” a flexible block where the school is innovating different approaches to customize learning.

Innovation can start with Design EDU

I believe Colorado can build vibrant ecosystems that support educators in bringing new ideas and organizations to life. I recently joined a group of volunteers to create Design EDU, a one-and-a-half day event that brings educators from across Colorado to interview students and use design thinking to prototype new, student-centered approaches to education.

Design EDU is trying to build a statewide community of education innovators and empower them with the tools and resources they need to breathe life into their ideas. The first Design EDU event is in Denver on Nov. 3-4; interested folks can apply here.

Participants finish Design EDU by answering a challenge: how can you test your idea in 45 days? The challenge is not intended to be “one more thing” to add to the long to-do list that most educators carry around. The exercise is designed to build educators’ confidence that each one of them can innovate. They can lean into new ideas, test them and quickly determine whether they are worth exploring further.

It’s easy to believe that big innovations come from a sudden burst of genius, like a lightning strike. But, more often than not, innovation comes after lots and lots of tinkering and iterating. A more apt metaphor – you have to keep wandering out onto the innovation freeway so that success can run you over.

At the end of the weekend, Design EDU participants will connect directly with the Donnell-Kay Foundation’s EdSeeds program, a cohort-based incubator launching in summer 2012 that provides support for educators to try new innovations. Participants will also learn about the Colorado Legacy Foundation’s Expanded Learning Opportunities grant program, an opportunity to fund pilots for personalized learning experiences.

Ecosystems that support education innovation are not predicated on a single program or effort. Innovative educators should find support throughout their journey from community events where they connect with other like-minded people, to incubators that provide mentorship and financial resources, to grant-makers that fund the launch and scale of promising new ideas. Our most talented educators should receive help at every stage of their journey, so long as they keep moving the very best ideas for children forward.

Boulder as a model of innovation

The good news is that Colorado has a history of building communities that support innovation.

Boulder, for example, has become a preferred destination for technology start-ups due to community-building efforts like the Boulder Open Coffee Club and the Boulder-Denver New Tech Meetup. Entrepreneurs receive mentorship and support through the TechStars incubator program, a place where entrepreneurs can refine their ideas.

In his new book, Start-Up Communities, Colorado investor Brad Feld documents the multi-decade effort to transform Boulder into an innovation hub where entrepreneurs can thrive. Well, Colorado can also be a place where our educators’ ideas thrive.

At some point, we will shift the conversation from trying to “fix” education to building something better. We can empower our educators to lead Colorado into the future.

It turns out innovation starts at home.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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