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Remote learning has exposed the ways that traditional school models are failing to meet the needs of children today. While the format of school has moved online, the content has remained largely unchanged over the last century. There is an urgent need to increase the quality of schools, not by doing more of the same, but by investing in proven and diverse teams of educators to design and launch new schools from the ground up. Not only does this provide a reset in culture and operations, but it also gives leaders the opportunity to reimagine the learning strategy and create more innovative and diverse schools. Because of this, launching new schools and redesigning currently operating schools are both key to The Opportunity Trust’s strategy to increase access to a quality public education in St. Louis.

With The Opportunity Trust’s support, there are currently eight schools, both traditional district and public charter schools, in various stages of design and operation. Five of these school models have been created by education leaders who’ve participated in our Entrepreneur-In-Residence program. This two-year incubator supports future school founders as they design and launch new schools in St. Louis. Recently, schools born out of our Entrepreneur-In-Residence program have gained national attention and support for their innovative work.

National Recognition for Local Innovators

In 2018, Gavin Schiffres and Jack Krewson were working to build a new school that would provide students with engaging, relevant, and rigorous learning experiences to prepare them for the future. “We had lots of ideas, but we needed expert guidance and the financial backing to bring them to life,” says Schiffres.

Schiffres and Krewson found that support in their partnership with The Opportunity Trust. Their participation in the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program’s pilot year launched connections with successful school founders, national curriculum leaders, and new funding opportunities that propelled their dream school into a reality.

In 2019, their middle school, Kairos Academies, launched in the Dutchtown neighborhood of St. Louis. Just months after the school launched, Schiffres and Krewson were featured in the 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 List, celebrating their unique personalized school model.

Kairos’ strong foundation set the school up for continued success in the face of unexpected challenges brought on by the pandemic. “We already had many of the pieces in place—each student already had their own laptop, flexible schedules, personalized goals pursued through self-directed learning, and frequent one-on-one check-ins between students and their mentors for academic and emotional support,” says Schiffres. Their success has been highlighted as a national exemplar by leading education researchers Bellwether Education Partners, national education news publication Education Week, and even The Today Show.

Our next cohort of education Entrepreneurs-In-Residence will launch two schools next fall and have already received attention from national education funders for their research-backed, community-centered school designs. Collectively, Genevieve Backer and Colby Heckendorn, co-founders of Atlas Public Schools, and Kim Townsend, founder of The Leadership School, have engaged nearly 500 family and community members in understanding their desires for their children and their schools. This community-based approach, coupled with expert advising and research of national best-practices, has resulted in each new school being awarded grants from competitive national donors, including the New School Venture Fund, Camelback Ventures Fellowship, and others.

“Starting a new school from the ground up allowed us to listen to what families wanted for their children’s education,” says Heckendorn. “The Opportunity Trust’s support allowed us to build a school model based on families’ needs that is also backed by proven approaches we learned from research and relationships with world-class school leaders.”

Continuing to be a National Example

Mia Howard, Partner of Schools and Talent, has experienced the power of building new schools from the ground up first hand. Before joining The Opportunity Trust, she founded Intrepid College Prep, a network of high-performing schools in Nashville, which rose to become among the top 5% of public schools in Tennessee.

“Our goal is always to provide communities who have historically been furthest from opportunity with world-class school options,” says Howard. “I knew from my own experience that doing so requires a lot more than the will of a talented educator. If we are going to dramatically change the outcomes of schools serving Black and Brown children facing the challenges of poverty, we need schools that are designed with these families, grounded in the latest research in cognitive science, and supported by educators who have a track record of success in providing an exceptional public education in marginalized communities.”

The fastest improving school districts across the nation systematically empower educators to redesign schools alongside community members, supporting the expansion of successful approaches, inspiring innovation to address unmet needs, and replacing failing schools with stronger models.

“We are investing in talented and diverse local education leaders to build the schools their communities have been asking for,” says Howard. “Imagine what the public school system in St. Louis could look like a decade from now with dozens of diverse, community-embedded, world-class schools.”

Read more about the research on school transformation that guides this work and how districts across the nation are tapping into programs like the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program to create 21st-century school systems.