learn Winner / 2014

Incubator School Programs + Playbook: Open Source 21st Century Entrepreneurial Education

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by The Incubator School

Building an entrepreneurial education for the 21st century, and a playbook to open source that education for all students and schools.


Please describe yourself.

Collaboration (partners are signed up and ready to hit the ground running!)

In one sentence, please describe your idea or project.

Building an entrepreneurial education for the 21st century, and a playbook to open source that education for all students and schools.

Which area(s) of LA does your project benefit?

  • Central LA
  • East LA
  • South LA
  • San Gabriel Valley
  • San Fernando Valley
  • South Bay
  • Westside

What is your idea/project in more detail?

Humans learn by doing. We’ve taken this simple truth and are forging a school and movement around it. By design learning environments with real world impacts, we help our students experience the joy of connecting knowledge and action. Tech is in our DNA; our students use it to explore, communicate, and make. We dismantle the boundaries between school and not-school; our middle schoolers meet with CEOs and journalists, they code, create websites, redesign beaches, present at conferences, do statistical samplings, and above all collaborate with each other and adults to launch startups. We want all students to have access to this way of schooling, so we’d like to build an online playbook to share our discoveries, methods, tools and curriculum.

What will you do to implement this idea/project?

Start up education is a new frontier, and the Incubator School is one of its pioneers. As a free, diverse, open enrollment LAUSD public school that launched in 2013, we are bringing innovation to the second largest school district in the country. In fact, we’re one of the only schools in the world working to combine entrepreneurship and schooling for middle and high school students.

We’re designing a thoughtful and comprehensive program where we add one grade per year and each grade builds upon the previous one. Our goal is for students take ownership: of their passions, interests, and behavior, their relationship to their peers, communities, and world, the impact they want to have on that world. Our program grows students’ collaborative capabilities and their ability to communicate to diverse audiences for diverse purposes. It also nurtures a solutions-orientation; we are training our students to empathize with others, assess needs, and deploy a variety of tools, techniques, and pathways to design responses to problems they see around them. In our program students explore non-profit projects and for-profit ones, and learn about social entrepreneurship as well as the fast paced world of Silicon Beach. We engage our learners in exploring the ethics of different choices and the impact of different decisions. In short, we start up students to become 21st century citizens.

To accomplish this, we are continually testing, experimenting, and iterating. We observe and measure what works and what doesn’t. We seek feedback from all our stakeholders. To start up students, we need to stay small and agile like a start up company.

Building such a responsive comprehensive program, as well as an online playbook that enables us to extend our reach to anyone who wants to borrow or adapt our program, requires time. Time, of course, means people. As a small LAUSD public school in a system that determines budgets based on the number of pupils, we were allocated 2.6 teachers last year; this year we have 6. Yet, these early years require the greatest amount of research and development, partnership-building, and training.

We will use the grant to hire additional staff to enable us to build out our program as well as our playbook to share our program. We will also use the funds to help grow the expertise of our teachers and bring in expert partners to help us design 21st century learning experiences.

How will your idea/project help make LA the best place to LEARN today? In 2050?

Los Angeles is the third most vibrant startup economy in the world, yet that energy has not made its way into our city’s schools. We want to change that. Schools and the ideas of young people should be the drivers of the future and feed their visions into the startup world. Los Angeles has to tap youthful, out-of-the-box thinking to grow the economy towards LA2050. For this to happen, learning in LA needs to flow in every direction through the vast, diverse interconnected ecosystem that is our city. The Incubator School is a connector that facilitates this flow.

In an ecosystem every part is dependent on every other part, and needs to learn to value the other parts. We work with everyone to connect the complex and exciting parts of Los Angeles’ learning energy.

We bring social and for-profit entrepreneurs into our school to share their expertise so that our students absorb starting up as a mindset. We retrain teachers to collaborate with funders, engineers, artists, chief technology officers, game developers, conservationists, designers, and other experts to design curricula that reflect the 21st century. As they work with our teachers and students, these experts and entrepreneurs also learn from our students and teachers, thereby impacting how they think about the world.

We work with large and small companies as well as non-profits and service organizations. Our students have conference calls with CTOs of companies whose learning products and games they beta test. They were some of the first middle schoolers to work with LA Audubon Society; they proposed redesigns of Dockweiler Beach so that its facilities could meet the needs of both humans and the federally threatened snowy plover. Our students created apps that anyone in the city can use (free augmented reality apps for the Ballona Wetlands). Through these interactions, not only do our students change but so do the organizations with whom they work. They come to see middle schools as possible thought partners.

We collaborate with foundations and other schools to launch conferences where students, adults, teachers, administrators, game designers, technology companies, nonprofits, and arts organizations connect and share expertise (innovatED.LA). Our students and staff participate in Startup Weekends, hackathons, makerspaces.

We connect as many parts of the ecosystem together as we can so learning can flow freely, and our playbook will extend this connecting even further.

Whom will your project benefit?

We are a diverse, integrated LAUSD public school that anyone can attend: last year 39% of our students were low income, 47% were Latino, 32% White, 16% African American, 5% Asian; 19% Special Education, 15% Gifted and Talented. Our project will most immediately benefit them. This year we are expanding from 62 6th-7th graders to about 140 6th-8th graders. Each year we will add one additional grade.

However, our reach extends beyond our school. We host visiting teachers, administrators, foundations, non-profits, etc, every week. The US Department of Education and the State Department have visited us, as have delegations and journalists from Thailand, Korea, Japan, and China. Since we were featured on BBC News on July 4th, we’ve received requests for information and curriculum from England, Ireland, Hungary, Chile, India, Italy, Romania, and throughout the United States. Our free online playbook would allow what we’re doing to spread all through the world.

Our goal, however, is to change education in Los Angeles. We want our students to become change agents even more than they are already. We want them to change what Los Angeles expects from its students, and we want the Incubator School to change what Los Angeles expects from its schools.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

We partner with many organizations to grow our programs (New Learning Institute of the Pearson Foundation, LA Audubon, CoderDojo, GameDesk, Playmaker, Joan Ganz Cooney Center @ Sesame Workshop, Institute of Play, Everyone On, Pearson PLC), but for this grant we will be partnering with the Los Angeles chapter of the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship to build our capacity to teach entrepreneurship and create a playbook for launching startups during middle and high school.

NFTE’s mission is to provide programs that inspire young people from low-income communities to stay in school, to recognize business opportunities, and to plan for successful futures. To do so NFTE runs during- and after-school programs, as well as NFTE University, a mini-MBA program for teachers to train them in entrepreneurial thinking and practices. NFTE’s programs have reached over 7,800 students in Los Angeles since 2007, and over 500,000 nationally.

The Incubator School believes that schools of LA2050 must be entrepreneurial. They need to understand the expertise they bring to the table, and work with others to grow that expertise as well as share it. Exchanges and partnerships need to be mutual.

We deeply value the expertise NFTE’s mini-MBA program will bring to our instructional staff and plan to have NFTE train them.

However, we also plan to help grow NFTE’s programs. Their middle school curriculum leads students to creating a business concept while their high school curriculum has students creating a business plan.

Our goal is for students actually to launch startups: in 8th grade in the school, and in 12th grade in the real world in Silicon Beach.

Our collaboration will thus enable both organizations to expand our capacities.

Three critical factors are:

1) mutual growth 2) the ability of both organizations to dedicate staff time to the collaboration 3) the ability of both organizations to extend the reach of the curricula the collaboration develops

We have not worked together in the past, but we greatly look forward to working together in the future.

How will your project impact the LA2050 “Learn” metrics?

  • Youth unemployment and underemployment
  • Academic Performance Index scores
  • Student education pipeline (an integrated network of pre-schools, K-12 institutions, and higher education systems that prepares students for seamless transitions between high school, higher education institutions, and the workforce) (Dream Metric)
  • Suspension and expulsion rates (Dream Metric)
  • Truancy rates in elementary and middle school (Dream Metric)
  • Students perceived sense of safety at and on the way to school (Dream Metric)
  • Entrepreneurship Access for All

Please elaborate on how your project will impact the above metrics.

In 2013 the Gallup Organization released the results of a poll on student motivation in school. They titled it, “The School Cliff: Student Engagement Drops With Each School Year.” The drop in middle and high school was precipitous. Students are disengaged from school. The poll analysis went on to say, “among the many types of students whose engagement wanes during their time in the educational system are those who have high entrepreneurial talent. These are literally our economic saviors – the future job creators for America.”

We founded the Incubator School to address the disengagement/ dropout crisis facing our city’s schools. Students often act up, act out, are chronically absent, and academically unmotivated because they’re disengaged with the 19th century school topics and techniques that they encounter for six hours each day.

However, from a decade plus of teaching diverse students in LAUSD, we understand that students might be disengaged from school but they are not disengaged from learning. They learn to play games, use apps, use new technologies like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, etc. in ways and at speeds that put adults to shame.

Our goal is to bring the types and methods of learning that are outside of school inside. Technology has to be the driver for this re-engagement of middle and high schoolers with school. We also know that many of the entrepreneurial students who drop out of or retreat from school learning take their energies and talents into underground economies, be they selling things at school (every public high school in LA has an entire world of alternate food suppliers) or selling illegal substances outside of school. We believed that students who do this do so in part because they don’t have access to legal entrepreneurial networks.

At the Incubator School we offer all our students the intellectual and social capital, contacts, connectivity, and skills to help their fledgling entrepreneurial ideas fly. We meet them where they are so that they can go where they would like to go. We aim to make a different future possible.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project.

We are requesting funding to 1) build out our programs, especially our entrepreneurship program, and 2) begin building out our playbook (the documentation of our programs, tools, and techniques so that other schools may adopt and adapt them).

Our metric for success for building out our programs is:

1) the creation of a year-long 8th grade startup program including clearing all present hurdles: child labor law issues, intellectual property issues, liability issues, tax liability issues, negotiations with district and governmental entities, structuring learning pathways for students, creating a mentorship database, defining the processes by which middle schoolers may leave school to ‘intern’ at external organizations, etc.

Our metrics for success for building out our playbook are:

1) creating online databases of and training modules for curricula, teacher development and in-class tools that can be used to grow a general startup mindset as well as a specific entrepreneurial program

2) the reach of the playbook (number of schools, number of students adopting it).

What two lessons have informed your solution or project?

1) We have learned from the startup scene that continually iterating is vital to staying relevant. The world is changing very rapidly, and secondary students are barometers of that change. They’re extremely sensitive to being current, and school, to stay relevant and become a springboard to a different future, has to be responsive. We do this through empathy, gathering data including regular student and parent surveys as well as student successes and areas of need, and then tweaking or revamping or completely pivoting on our systems to meet those needs.

2) Expertise is diffuse and found everywhere in today’s world. We have learned that if we wait for teachers to master everything before they can teach it (especially technology), teachers become bottlenecks that contribute to the increasing irrelevance of schools. Instead, we try to flatten our organization as much as possible. Students engage in skillsharing, as do teachers, experts from outside of school, and online learning sources. Learning is everywhere and anywhere, and exchanging learning offers a model for breaking down bottlenecks.

Explain how implementing your project within the next twelve months is an achievable goal.

Our project goals (building an 8th grade startup program and creating documentation for it so others can adapt it) are very concrete and manageable. If we are able to hire a staff person who is dedicated to this project, as well as use funds to train our teachers at NFTE University, we will be able to create an entrepreneurship program for our inaugural 8th grade class. Partnering with NFTE as well as the LAUSD and other area public, independent, and charter schools with whom we already have relationships will enable us to expand the reach of our program through our and their social networks. In addition, because of the extensive press we receive, we have a ready ‘market’ for our free playbook; we just don’t have the staffing to be able to create it.

Please list at least two major barriers/challenges you anticipate. What is your strategy for ensuring a successful implementation?

The first barrier we are facing is the tangle of state and district impediments to entrepreneurship in middle school classrooms, including the 69-pages of regulations on child labor issued by the State of California’s Department of Industrial Relations and Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. A major Silicon Valley law firm has offered to work with us to help us navigate these issues.

The second challenge we face concerns trying to distill the complexity of our approach to learning design into replicable tools, procedures, and curricula that other schools can readily adopt. For this we are working with the Institute of Play which has expertise in creating learning design playbooks.

What resources does your project need?

  • Money (financial capital)
  • Volunteers/staff (human capital)
  • Education/training