Social Innovation Fellow Redesigns K-12 Education from the Ground Up

Sarah Craig, MSx ’18, is developing a community-supported approach to innovation in education in Virginia.

August 09, 2019

SIF Fellow Sarah Craig, MSx ’18

Sarah Craig, MSx ‘18, is one of two 2018 recipients of the Stanford GSB Social Innovation Fellowship. | Stacy Geiken

Through Journey Learning Labs, Sarah Craig wants to spark and sustain innovation both in and outside of K-12 education so that youth from all neighborhoods and backgrounds have equitable opportunities to learn to create the relationships they want, obtain the work they want, and work towards the community they want to live in.

Craig was conducting interviews to better understand the state of the schools in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia — beyond standardized test scores used to measure schools — when one mother, whose child attended one of the “best” public schools, turned to her in tears. “I would do anything to place my third-grader in an environment that sees her strengths rather than her weaknesses,” she said. “Can we be a founding family in the kind of schools you imagine?”

That mother and many other parents recognize when their children aren’t thriving, and they know how high the stakes are. Right now, says Craig, not only are options limited in her city, Richmond, but also in the state of Virginia, which has yet to be affected by the recent movement of communities redesigning their schools.

“Many students in public schools are disengaged. Regardless of test scores, parents are much more disillusioned than public school reputations would indicate, and historical inequities of outcomes remain entrenched. Worse still, innovative curriculums are virtually impossible for teachers to create and grow into full programs,” Craig says.

This is what she intends to change. Backed by $110,000 in funding from Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Social Innovation Fellowship, Craig plans to research and design Journey Learning Labs, an education-innovation incubator informed by organizations like 4.0 Schools, an organization that enables community stakeholders across profession, wealth, jurisdiction, and race to come together to learn, design, and implement new solutions to old problems.

As Craig sees it, youth, parents, teachers, administrators, and other community members will explore educational techniques, such as personalized learning, project-based learning, mastery-based evaluation, and mixed-age learning, while holding together academic growth and career readiness. Community-created projects taken to implementation may include new schools or shorter-term learning experiences similar to Lab Atlanta, where a diverse mix of youth from across the region attend one semester sophomore year. By 2020, Craig hopes to have the first community-designed projects underway in Richmond.

Regardless of test scores, parents are much more disillusioned than public school reputations would indicate, and historical inequities of outcomes remain entrenched.
Sarah Craig, MSx ’18

Craig, who came to the Stanford GSB after a career in fundraising and K-12 out-of-school-time program design, including 15 years in Richmond, plans to create a lean model to support innovation that responds to local communities in a way that can be replicated in other communities. Using the professional network she grew as chief impact officer for Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond, she has already begun laying the foundation for Journey Learning Labs’ innovations by involving local parents, teachers, and leaders in education, philanthropy, business, and government in conversation.

The Problem

Craig is aware that young people will inherit a world that is changing at a rapid pace — 85 percent of jobs available in 2030 haven’t yet been identified. By that time the United States will be 15 years away from being a majority-minority nation. Kids from all backgrounds will need different skills to thrive in the future from those that today’s adults needed when they graduated.

She estimates that less than 5 percent of students in Richmond attend schools that incorporate new methods of teaching and learning, such as social and emotional learning, personalized approaches, and true student-led, project-based learning. The prevailing emphasis on evaluating outcomes of education through standardized test scores means, says Craig, that children aren’t taught to think critically about the world or about their own strengths and identities, and that the racial bias behind such tests further disadvantages minority youth.

Though communities in other states are embracing redesign as a way toward excellence and equity of outcomes, Craig’s community, Richmond, can be slow to adopt ideas that were created elsewhere. Educators know about the skills our youth need to thrive — critical thinking, communication skills, and initiative — but feel bound by the prevailing school models in places like Richmond, which emphasize teaching to what can be measured by standardized tests. That mindset is almost antithetical to what’s needed to thrive in the future, Craig says.

And, like the rest of the nation, the Richmond area has racially unequal exposure to poverty, which results in predictably unequal outcomes: a typical Black or Hispanic student in the Richmond region attends a school where two out of three peers are poor. In contrast, a typical non-poor Asian or white student attends a school where just one out of four peers are poor. Nationwide, young people in the wealthiest school districts test, on average, four grade levels above students in high poverty districts.

Given this disparity of outcomes, Craig notes that any redesign of schools must not only allow kids to build the skills they need to thrive in the workplace of the future, but also must be designed to acknowledge the needs of students from all demographics to create equal opportunities to succeed. She notes that, though national dialogue about the achievement gap often suggests that some families and youth are less able to learn than others, this gap is actually a design problem. Craig notes that Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian, is credited with the innovation that is public education in the United States. The system he imagined, however, was intentionally two-tiered, separating the learned from the laborer and using scholarships for the “best geniuses … raked from the rubbish” to help them join the learned class. The residue of this view that the educational system preordains students for particular roles in the economy still permeates most educational institutions, and innovation is necessary to support all students for the challenges of the future.

The Novel Idea

Craig believes the best solutions to entrenched problems are those believed in by a broad spectrum of the community and designed by those who are proximate to the problem. Journey Learning Labs will bring proven practices in both educational redesign and equity-centered design to the greater Richmond community, inviting all stakeholders, from youth to policymakers, to the table to build relationships, learn and design together, and then test and scale solutions.

Journey Learning Labs activities will include monthly small-group education discussions, courses on the history of racial inequity in Virginia and the United States, experiences of design thinking, and community-wide design charrettes about the future of education. They are expected to 1) provoke community engagement around educational inequity and national trends in education innovation, 2) welcome and cultivate a diverse ecosystem of innovators and team members, and 3) guide teams through an equity-centered design process that includes the students and families that will benefit from the new schools and learning experiences. Journey Learning Labs participants will explore interdisciplinary learning ideas, student-led and competency-based learning, as well as culturally relevant and critical pedagogies.

Drawing on her deep experience in fundraising and community-building, Craig plans to spend six to 18 months building community support for Journey Learning Labs and finding the first cohorts of parents and students to contribute to its design and programming.

Eventually, she hopes that the initiatives created and supported through Journey Learning Labs will not only reduce the achievement gap between white students and students of color and give youth the ability to create the relationships they want, obtain the work they want and work towards the community they want, but will also create a culture of innovation and collaboration.

The Innovator

Craig comes from a line of educators. Both of her parents were public school teachers; her father was an elementary and middle school principal as well as district administrator. Two of her grandparents were teachers, and her grandfather was a principal in a small Virginia town during the era of desegregation. She has an undergraduate degree from the College of William & Mary and a master’s in Old Testament studies from Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. After her years in Vancouver, she returned to Richmond in part because she wanted to understand how race affects inequality in the United States. “If I wanted to understand the contours of how the social construct of race has affected our nation and continues to impact policy, there’s no better place than Richmond, where our history is that of our nation,” she says.

As her career in the nonprofit world grew, Craig began to take the insights she gleaned from her life outside work, including six years she spent living in communities where individuals have been disinherited by race and poverty, and put them into practice in her day job. While leading a campaign to raise $25 million for Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond to build facilities and programs to reach teens, she also built a diverse team of staff and influenced stakeholders to shift their strategy toward outcomes, rewrite their theory of change, and redesign programs to give youth more voice and choice in their experiences at the club and, ultimately, in their community.

Staff and stakeholders were excited about the gains youth started to make, but Craig began to worry that as youth began to speak up more about their needs and perspective on the injustice caused by historical racism, she could be setting them up for conflict in public schools where conformity is pervasive. “I needed to figure out how to influence the school day,” she says.

As her ambition to catalyze deeper educational reform grew, she considered applying to Stanford GSB. She was surprised and thrilled when she got in. Being at Stanford wasn’t always easy. “This culture of belief in youth and innovation is so strong. At times, my belief that the very attributes that make innovation difficult in Virginia — a deep commitment to place and a recognition that solutions that sound simple are unlikely to work — can be the very ones that make it possible to make progress together toward equity and excellence for our youth was hard for people at Stanford to understand,” she says.

But she knew that if she didn’t pursue her idea for Journey Learning Labs, regardless of the challenges, she would eventually regret it. “Building relationships across differences that are truly equitable — where those perceived to be powerful and those without power sit together over a meal and design a future that includes them both — is just part of who I am,” she says. “As many who’ve been involved in the work of equity will say, my own liberation is bound to the work. Being accepted by those who don’t have to accept me, particularly African Americans, has been healing and joyful for me. What choice do I have but to continue this learning journey?”

— Elizabeth MacBride

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