Accelerating Innovation through Communities of Practice: Our First Catapult Cohort

November 23, 2015

Entrepreneurs innovate more quickly and effectively when they can learn from others grappling with challenges similar to the ones they are facing.  Leaders who are opening innovative new schools can go farther and faster working together than they can in isolation. This can be challenging when the day-to-day demands of running a school or school organization do not allow much time to step aside and learn from others.   

An essential part of the success of our entrepreneurs is bringing them together to learn from one another and experts.  Here’s a window into how we do that, and what a group of our ventures learned in their first time together earlier this month.


In October, we announced the first 14 winners of Catapult, our program to invest in new schools.  These teams are focused on creating and launching new school models that will launch in fall 2015 or 2016. This incredibly talented group of entrepreneurs represent 11 states and a wide range of innovative instructional models, and are opening their first or second school. While we knew some leaders already from our work in this space, there are others who we had not heard of until we read their applications.  All of them excited us with the potential of how they are thinking about personalizing learning, increasing student agency, and measuring an expanded definition of student success. 



School leaders are incredibly busy.  We wanted them to do meaningful work together that they’d derive great value from, and build connections that would lead them to feel as though their journey with each other was just beginning.  We aimed to maximize their time with each other so that they would leave the convening with a host of new colleagues and thought-partners they can contact throughout the school year when they need support or questions answered.


We chose Austin, Texas, for our first convening – a central location with decent weather at this time of year.  The location allowed for folks to “get away” from other distractions and have plenty of space to spread out.  The agenda allowed for bonding time, both over meals and activities, to give our entrepreneurs time to get to know each other personally. On our opening night, we had a lovely dinner outside under the pecan trees and a campfire to set the tone. The combination of content and social time allowed folks to extend conversations they started earlier in the convening and get to know each other even better.

In terms of programming, we collected information about our ventures’ needs and strengths prior to the convening, and listened carefully to what they wanted to get out of the convening.  This allowed us to tailor whole group programming to only a few sessions, curate a small number of expert breakout sessions from which leaders could choose, and leverage the participants’ expertise and pressing concerns by building in two different time slots for consultancies. We ran a number of consultancies simultaneously so that participants could choose based on their needs and interests.  


Day 1

Overview & Introductions
Whole group: Working Toward Greater Student Agency
Cocktail hour, dinner outside, s’mores

Day 2

Whole group: Dissatisfied Yet Optimistic
·         Expanded Definition of Student Success
·         Strategies for Fostering a Strong, Diverse School Community
·         Student Recruitment 101
·         Building and Managing a Board (Charter Board Partners)
School consultancies
Line dancing, dinner, live music

Day 3

Whole group: Storytelling Tips to Engage Your School Stakeholders (Atlantic Media Strategies)
School consultancies
Next Steps



Our Catapult entrepreneurs are talented, thoughtful, engaged district and charter school leaders.  They loved getting to learn about each other’s school models.  They found it helpful to get outside perspectives on their work, and enjoyed engaging with each other professionally and socially.  They made new friends, most of whom they had already committed to contact after coming home. 



We are excited to see everyone together again at the NewSchools Summit in May, and are working on creating an optional school visit in the spring for leaders interested in seeing other models.  Some leaders are also planning informal visits to each other’s schools, or have arranged phone meetings to dig into the work together.

This convening laid the foundation for a viable community of practice that best meets the innovation needs of the leaders in the community, and we are excited to see how the community develops in the years to come.