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“What is your most pressing challenge right now?”

That was the question Kim Smith, then the executive director of Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, posed to 250 district leaders and educators at one of the organization’s meetings a few months before the pandemic.

The attendees were asked to respond using a word cloud. Smith remembers looking at the screen in front of the ballroom as the answers came in and one word stood out: equity.

Hearing that equity was the number one challenge facing districts that participate in the League, a national network of school leaders, it was clear to Smith that inclusion cannot be an add-on to existing programs, they must be specifically designed to be inclusive.

“We need to invest as an organization [in an] effort that will allow us to really focus on projects, initiatives, challenges and research that really is centered in this idea of inclusive innovation,” Smith said in an interview.

Smith said she and her colleagues at Digital Promise realized that to advance their work they’d need a way to formally support districts “all the way, from systems to classroom.”

In October 2020, Digital Promise launched the Center for Inclusive Innovation, as a way to create this support. Smith, now the chief inclusive innovation officer at Digital Promise, is the center’s co-leader. In her letter announcing the new effort, Smith wrote that the center will be focused on creating and exploring “models, tools, programs, and products that are created by and supportive of the needs, interests, and dreams of Black, Brown, and Indigenous students and families.”

Last year, the center picked a handful of districts across the country to pilot four projects: advancing secondary reading and writing for Black, Hispanic and low-income students; developing a diverse educator pipeline designed by teachers of color; creating professional development resources that help educators engage students in racial justice conversations and action; and helping districts develop a comprehensive, inclusive strategy for alleviating a local problem of their choosing. The center’s work involves not only students and educators but, in some cases, also local grassroots groups and other community partners.

Some pilots are near completion, such as one on advancing secondary reading and writing. The center selected two districts for the project: Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, and the Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona.

The Center for Inclusive Innovation’s design studio session with Sunnyside Unified School District in Tuscon, Arizona. Educators, students and community members participated in the spring 2022 session designing solutions to help the districts meet new state standards in reading and writing. Credit: Courtesy of Digital Promise

The Sunnyside district, where roughly 90 percent of students are Hispanic, signed on at the start of the pandemic, after discovering that many of its ninth graders were struggling with the demands of recently adopted state standards for social science. Frank McCormick, at the time the district’s coordinator for social studies instruction, said those inquiry-based standards were a radical shift from the content-based standards that most students and teachers were used to. There was much more emphasis on critical thinking and primary source investigation.

“Consistently, quarter after quarter, we would see that ninth grade was the grade level that struggled the most with getting students to even turn in writing,” McCormick said. The center’s pilot “seemed like a really good partnership because it would allow us to really explore that question in depth, to really try to figure out why is it that ninth graders struggle so much with this task of doing inquiry-based writing.”

McCormick, who has been the co-lead for the district’s work with the center, said the pilot got off to a slow start due to the pandemic but, when it finally launched in 2021, students were involved in the process from the outset, a factor both district and center leaders stressed was important. Students have participated at every stage of the work, from investigating the root cause of the writing challenges to developing possible solutions.

“They’re very conscious in making sure that there is student voice,” McCormick said of the center’s model.

Before the launch of the center’s work, Smith and others at Digital Promise co-wrote a report detailing how to design an inclusive innovation model at scale. In it, they explain that “inclusive innovation” unfolds across five stages: connect and commit, inquire and investigate, design and develop, implement and iterate, and sustain and scale.

In June, Sunnyside wrapped up the development phase of its project, the third of the five phases. And students were a large part of the program. A team of students from the district’s career and technical education program spent a month working as paid interns to develop three prototype solution models that the district is hoping to pilot with teachers in the fall. The students, who are all planning to pursue careers in teaching, worked on the project with leaders from the center and the district, like McCormick.

Other pilots elsewhere in the country are also moving forward. For example, Bristol Township School District in Pennsylvania chose to focus on students’ mental health and racial trauma, while Reynoldsburg School District in Ohio is focused on helping teachers engage in equity conversations in the classroom, particularly around race. Several other districts in Pennsylvania and Ohio are participating in multiple pilots. Middletown City School District in Ohio, for example, is part of two projects: developing a pipeline for teachers of color and creating systematic change.

Sunnyside’s McCormick said he’s optimistic that the effects of the writing project will stick long after the center ends its direct involvement with the district this year. The district is still part of the League of Innovative Schools and will continue to have conversations with other leaders, he said. McCormick, who is now an assistant principal at a district school, said the district will try to ensure that “we have a model that’s not only functional that meets the needs of the problem statement that we’ve addressed, but something that’s also scalable, that we can take ownership and develop on our own.”

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  1. I enjoyed Javeria Salman’s article “Bringing ‘Inclusive Innovation’ to School Districts.” Indeed, equity and inclusion are, or should be, synonymous in PreK-12 education. As students engage in talking, listening, reading, writing, and visualizing, they benefit from higher interactive thinking skills (HITS) that are connected to developmentally appropriate content. Regrettably, some educators believe that young children and learners from low-income backgrounds need a basic skills foundation before they are exposed to meaningful learning. Instead of treating basic skills and meaningful learning as exclusive processes, research provides valuable suggestions for using children’s literature—fiction and nonfiction—as impetus for inferential discussions and for teaching “inferencing” to children still learning to decode. This positive, inclusive context humanizes learning by making it interesting and by providing opportunities to learn and apply important skills, such as phonics and spelling, in meaningful reading and writing activities.
    Joseph Sanacore
    Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning
    Post Campus of Long Island University
    Brookville, NY

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