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Incubating, innovating

A teachers fellowship at 36 Degrees North hopes to spur new kinds of growth in local public schools



Hans Kleinschmidt

Adaptation is more than change—it’s the mechanism by which a species becomes better suited to its environment. The 21st century is a new environment, and the way the next generation survives is by learning ways to solve problems that their parents couldn’t even imagine. Right now, Oklahoma is in survival mode, and eerily positioned to test H.G. Wells axiom that “civilization is in a race between education and disaster.” There isn’t a parent in the state who hasn’t wondered what a more than $800,000,000 budget shortfall means for their kids’ futures.

If there is a way out of this rapidly devolving math problem, it seems most likely to be found in small communities and local businesses and dependent on the willingness of overworked, underpaid educators to adapt. To that end—and to aid those educators—a group of Tulsa business leaders began a forward-thinking grant program earlier this year called the Teacher Innovation Fellowship, designed to bring complex business problem solving strategies into the Oklahoma classroom.

36 Degrees North is what’s known as a collaborative workspace, named after Oklahoma’s line of latitude and designed as a one-stop basecamp for local entrepreneurs. Imagine the aesthetic of an Apple Genius Bar paired with a college campus. It’s meant to be a place where profoundly different groups of people work side by side. Group workspaces for freelance writers and software developers alongside spaces for video editors and engineers resemble the kind of venture capital incubators that are standard fare in the California tech industry. It’s from this perspective that Director Dustin Curzon became convinced that 36 Degrees North could help Oklahoma educators.

Curzon looks like the archetype of a young 21st century capitalist. The kind of guy perpetually beaming in a business commercial. Unassuming, bearded, bright eyed, and idealistic, he describes 36 Degrees North like some modern intellectual brain trust designed to build profit and community all at once.

“Our mission at 36 Degrees North is really to connect entrepreneurs to a place to work, a community of passionate individuals and to the resources they need to succeed,” he said.

So, in collaboration with local leadership development fellowship The Mine, 36 Degrees North created the Teacher Innovation Fellowship, a grant program that awards money to groups of teachers who propose the most innovative solutions to Tulsa’s education problems.

“Brian Pascal. He’s the president for The Foundation for Tulsa Schools. I blame him for all this,” said Curzon. “This was his original idea. Brian told me last year that teachers had some of the best pitches that he had ever seen. They were really innovative and they weren’t asking for a lot of money, but they could do so many cool things. So that was really kind of the spark that drove us. We were looking at The United Way innovation grants.”

In March 2017, the Teacher Innovation Fellowship received applications from nearly 100 local educators. From those, the fellowship chose 15 teachers, including pre-K teachers, science and math teachers, and an outdoor education yoga specialist, and grouped them in teams of four. In June, this diverse crew from Tulsa and Union Public Schools spent two weeks in classes at 36 Degrees North learning human-centered design, a problem solving strategy coined and developed by the global design firm IDEO—the company that designed the original Apple mouse and the modern red shopping carts at Target.

“They kind of created this human-centered design process. One [team] may have an engineer and an attorney and a designer and a psychologist all working on the same problem. IDEO became known for putting a wide array of viewpoints on all their designs,” Curzon said.

For the two weeks, the teachers received a $1,000 stipend and spent several hours a day studying the strategy method and learning about collaborative process from Hannah Ralston, program manager of The Mine.

“Many of our fellows are Teach for America alumni, and working with the Teacher Innovation Fellowship was The Mine’s first real dive into projects in the education sector. It was a great alignment,” Ralston said. “We seek projects with a large impact on the Tulsa community in education, public health, and economic development through social enterprise—all exciting possibilities.”

On June 29, each of the teacher teams pitched their solutions to a panel of judges.

“Each team had five to seven minutes to pitch. We had [$20,000 in] grant funding from the United Way to award money to the teams that evening. They weren’t really competing with each other for the money so much as themselves—can they come up with a compelling reason why they need that much? And the judges decided based on their presentation. We wanted them to be competitive but to know that they’re not going to walk away empty handed,” Curzon said.

Members of the teams ran the gamut from teachers who’ve been in the field for two years to others who have more than 20 years’ experience. Part of the fellowship’s aim was to encourage the teams to use their group’s dynamic to help tailor and narrow their inquiry. Over the next year, 36 Degrees North will have regular check-in meetings with the teaching teams to gauge their processes and progress.

“Part of their pitch presentation was setting a goal, [such as] by the end of the next school year we want to x. We want to have this many students go through a program, or this many classrooms pilot the program,” said Curzon. “We’ll check in with them throughout the school year to see how that’s going and ask if there’s anything we can do to help them. The biggest measure of success for us is if these teachers feel encouraged and excited to try these ideas going into the school year.”

The process sounds esoteric, but the solutions the teachers are seeking are practical. One team, from Hamilton Elementary, sought funding for a stone meditation garden and a community garden to combat one of the surrounding community’s most basic problems: it’s a food desert. Another team pitched creating a mentorship and collaborative teaching program to help combat Oklahoma’s epidemic of teacher burnout and support teachers’ mental health. One group, made up of educators from three different schools, pitched regular parent and community engagement events with experts to discuss civic issues and encourage parents in social development and civic engagement with their neighborhoods.

“Instilling in teachers this kind of entrepreneurial, innovative thinking is going to affect students who will be the future business owners and leaders of tomorrow,” said Curzon. “We’re actively helping businesses grow, but we’re also helping Tulsa as a community become more entrepreneurial and continue to make that part of our DNA.”

The goal of each of the team’s solutions—as well as the solutions hoped for by The Mine and 36 Degrees North—is to fill in the gaps. Real life problems created largely by the great recession and the current funding crisis continue to grow.

Hungry kids can’t learn. Teachers with 35 children in a classroom rarely remain in education for long. Overworked, underfunded local schools with no other meaningful connection to their communities rarely help solve any of those communities’ problems.

Oklahoma is one such community with far-reaching problems that presently, only education seems capable of solving. For example, what happens when our state’s largest employer ceases, at least in large part, to exist?

The number one employment industry in Oklahoma is transportation. This means truck drivers and various transport vehicle drivers often working for oil and natural gas, the most common job in the state, could eventually be out of work. Volkswagen and other automakers estimate the first driverless car will come to market in 2019. Education, which can and should create new opportunities for the citizens of this state, is the only answer for such a problem. Teachers need tools and methods to equal the scale of crises seen and unforeseen.

“I’ll join the chorus of many other people in saying Tulsa’s biggest challenge is the education system and I know the mayor’s office and the school districts are working really hard with what they have to make it work,” Curzon said, then added that the creators of the Teacher Innovation Fellowship hope to replicate it in the future.

“We want to do our part. We can’t change the whole system, but we can contribute a little bit to it.”

Force multiplier

Created in 2013, The Mine is a leadership development fellowship with a goal of sharpening and developing local talent working on social impact projects.

The Mine teaches human-centered design, a problem-solving technique that involves human perspective in all steps of the process. According to Director Hannah Ralston, the technique and relationships have already yielded dividends.

“The Mine partnered with the Tulsa United Way to revitalize their innovation grant process,” said Ralston. “Since 2014 we’ve awarded over $815,000 to different projects to benefit the community. That second year, we worked with Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation to create a business plan for Tulsa’s first kitchen incubator- Kitchen 66, which celebrated its first anniversary in February and has graduated 16 food businesses from it’s launch program.”

Ultimately The Mine wants to be a force multiplier for social good by taking a small idea and making it better and easier to replicate elsewhere. Ralston is excited about the direction the fellowship is heading.

“We’ve increased the number of people attending social innovation workshops, with 40 individuals trained in the last month alone. We want to continue this momentum to build a culture of social innovation in Tulsa.”

For more from Damion, read his article on the 2017 World Culture Music Festival.

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