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In the pursuit of creating something unprecedented, it is easy to run up against the limitations of our own perspective. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our education system. For better and for worse, each of us has our own experience of 2nd grade and of high school. So when educators set out to rethink what school can and should be, it’s only natural that they’re quickly confronted by the limitations of what they can imagine.

To break through this barrier, The Opportunity Trust has regularly brought leaders from our community to visit innovative and excellent schools and programs across the country so they can see for themselves what’s possible. These trips have proven to be a critical ingredient in expanding the imagination, conviction, and clarity of leaders who have gone on to launch powerful efforts back home.

Then COVID-19 hit. While the ability to travel to schools across the country dried up, the hunger for new strategies and ways of designing school is higher than ever. Facing this reality, The Opportunity Trust was excited to be a founding sponsor of The Inspiration Project. This collaborative effort was created by a trio of designers and coaches known nationally for their work helping to redesign schools across the country.

“In our fellowships, we’ve been advocating for educators to seize this moment as an opportunity to innovate, to incorporate new and better ways to serve children,” says Eric Scroggins. “We realized that we needed to hold ourselves to the same standard.”

The Inspiration Project has launched with a series of six virtual experiences, each centered on a theme that represents a need and opportunity for our education system: ownership, deep thinking, and relevance to name a few. Each session brings together about 30 leaders from across the country to dive into three examples of organizations and schools doing promising, provocative work aligned to that theme. They watch videos, hear from students, debrief with school leaders, and distill takeaways that might shape their own work.

The series launched on November 12th, with a focus on Belonging. After unpacking moments of belonging (or absence of belonging) in their own lives, participants explored the work of three organizations taking different, yet equally impressive approaches to nurturing belonging. They heard high school student leaders from St. Benedict’s Preparatory School talk about the intense, but life-changing, 50-mile hike they did as a freshman class as a means of forging personal perseverance and ability to rely on the group. They pulled lessons from Joy as Resistance’s creation of safe spaces for LGBT students in Colorado and contemplated what it means to “belong to yourself.” They also dug into a new component of Citizens of the World’s middle school model, one that focuses on deep exploration of identity as a driver for creating powerful community in intentionally diverse contexts.

The sum of these explorations left the group with insights to inform their own practice and increased optimism and energy for the work they do with young people. Kirsten Tidwell, a current Catalyst Fellow and the Curriculum and Instructional Coach at Lift for Life Academy, found the three-hour session transportive. “It was incredibly powerful to hear from innovative schools who are explicitly and intentionally tackling the idea of belonging,” shares Tidwell. “It has inspired me to think about how my school can create intentional opportunities for students to do deep internal and interpersonal work within a safe space.”

As our educators are faced with the profound need to rethink the way they serve students, we are excited to bring the power of The Inspiration Project to educators from St. Louis and to continue our commitment to providing exposure and mind-expanding experiences to those trying to break from the status quo.