Part 1 of an interview with Carolyn Gramstorff, Founder & Director of the Educate78 School Design Lab. Carolyn is a former teacher and Oakland public school principal.

In 2015, Educate78 launched its School Design Lab (SDL) to address an unmet need to help school leadership teams reimagining Oakland public schools. Carolyn and her team have since supported 25 Leadership Fellows, working with schools like Roosevelt Middle School, Oakland School of Language, Roses in Concrete, Unity Middle School, and Thrival Academies. This school year, the School Design Lab has grown to add inspiring new Fellows and amazing new team members, and is looking forward to another year of accelerating school transformation for students across Oakland. You can follow, share, and engage with the work on social media via #OakSDL on Twitter and Facebook. In this first part, we ask one “simple” question:

What are your top three lessons learned from leading the School Design Lab?
Our first 18 months of SDL have reinforced my commitment to equity-centered design thinking. This process surfaces creative solutions and is based on the expertise of the community. It begins with engaging people who are affected, and using empathy and understanding to craft the school design.

Equity-centered design thinking creates a bias for action, through one-day hacks, two-day pop-ups, and eventually, longer pilots. This “start small” prototyping allows for deep learning and innovation – and ideally, elegantly simple solutions. Sometimes, we don’t need an elaborate plan. A lot of times we just need simple tweaks, better execution, and improved buy-in. Thinking smaller helps us focus on reflecting, learning, and iterating until we are seeing the outcomes we hoped for…and, maybe, some great byproducts that we never anticipated

We want this process to become a habit. Communities are never static, and transformational schools must be able to respond to the shifting needs of a community with grace, flexibility, and fluency.

Love the idea of equity-centered design thinking. How is it different from the typical approach?
The classic planning steps are: 1. Hold focus groups; 2. Lock yourself and colleagues into a room for days; 3. Cook up a 54-point strategic plan; 4. Develop spiffy slide deck; 5. Explain your magic solution and how it will work.

There are obvious problems with this approach. First, folks are exhausted before they even start implementing; and, second, they often encounter resistance from the people closest to the problem (understandably so!). So things stop moving, which creates a cycle where folks say “we tried that before and it didn’t work…”

What are some examples of equity-centered design thinking in SDL?
OUSD’s Hoover Elementary in West Oakland is a great example. Principal Ashley Martin and her team are starting small, learning hard, and working tirelessly to creatively solve the problems that impact their kids. They engaged their families in the redesign process and visited lots of schools. They tried tweaks like modifying team teaching configurations, using flexible seating, and tinkering with how to best implement learning stations. With each pilot, they learned, made adjustments, and sometimes threw out ideas that didn’t work. When an approach resulted in gains, they went deeper. The result? An improving Kindergarten program with a personalized approach. Hoover took the time – and frankly the risk – with smaller hacks and are now launching an exciting prototype of their education model from which they will continue to learn.

Awesome! We’ll keep our eye on Hoover in West Oakland. How about your other top two learnings?
Another important lesson from our pilot came from our SDL Fellows. They told us they needed more than technical support; they needed to develop as equity-centered leaders to manage the complexity of the work. So now we work on leadership development too. We like leadership guru Margaret Wheatley’s Six Circle Model, which includes both technical work (operations, structures, and strategies) and adaptive leadership skills like building relationships and practicing effective communication. We believe that both the technical and adaptive leadership skills are critical and learnable.

And your 3rd learning?
School transformation demands systemic change. Schools exist within specific contexts – districts or charter organizations, in communities, and within a regulatory structure. Change cannot happen exclusively at the site; other parts of the system must also adapt.

OUSD’s Roosevelt Middle School is an example. Roosevelt is a school that has been incredibly innovative within the walls of what used to be a typical “factory model” school. With the help of a grant from Next Generation Learning Challenge (NGLC), Roosevelt implemented a promising, personalized approach to mathematics instruction called Teach to One. It’s now seeing strong gains versus peer OUSD middle schools on the Scholastic Math Inventory (SMI) test. But the District central office still shipped the school boxes of math curriculum, even though they were not using it! A waste of money – something in very short supply in OUSD these days.

Could OUSD move from a factory-model approach to one that is more user-centered? Instead of ordering the same thing for all schools, could funds be given to leaders and their site councils – those closest to the students and community – to determine the best use? I’m sure this is more easily said than done. Nevertheless, we hope that our SDL fellows can help system-level iteration and improvement.

Future installments of our extended interview with Carolyn will tackle the tough question of how one advocates for more schools in a system with arguably too many already, how to improve existing schools while also supporting new programs, and what all this means for the future of the School Design Lab as it iterates and evolves with the changing landscape of Oakland. Remember to follow along via #OakSDL on Twitter and Facebook.