Building Communities for Education Innovation: One Catalyst At A Time

By David Fu, manager of community development at 4.0 Schools.

A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction — the transformation of something into something else. Like a chemical reaction, education entrepreneurship requires a number of conditions to be met to transform ideas into action — conditions that are more rare in locations without easy access to resources.

Through the Community Catalyst Program, we strive to create these conditions in communities beyond New Orleans and New York by identifying and training individuals to act as ‘catalysts’. As part of the Catalyst Program, each participant gets:

  • Coaching on how to inspire people, build a pipeline of aspiring education entrepreneurs, and help them move forward with their ideas
  • Training on how to run quality programming for education entrepreneurs
  • Community of fellow community builders, education entrepreneurs, and partners to learn from and collaborate
  • Funding to travel to 4.0 programming like Startup Weekend Education and Essentials

Ultimately, catalysts will shape us just as much as (if not more than) we will shape them, and enable us to build a national network of communities that have tools and resources to sustain education entrepreneurship locally.

Announcing Cohort 2

This year, we are running the Community Catalyst program to support two more organizations and four awesome individuals in three cities:

Reframe Labs

Reframe Labs is a nonprofit based in Denver and Los Angeles that identifies and supports diverse leaders to design and launch the schools of tomorrow.

Christine DeLeon

“If we are to achieve the equity we seek in our work, we need to identify and support leaders that mirror the makeup of our communities and help them design learning environments in partnership with students and families. These schools will not only empower students to succeed academically, but enable them to develop the agency, skills, and mindsets they need to persist through college and life. — CHRISTINE DE LEON, COFOUNDER OF REFRAME LABS

Connect with Christine

Russ Altenburg

“The very best public schools in the country serving low-income students see ~45% of their kids graduate college within six years. We can’t be content with just scaling these — -we need to be seeding the breakthrough schools of tomorrow. Reframe grooms the talent that will do that while helping them navigate the complex local school launch process.” — RUSS ALTENBURG, COFOUNDER OF REFRAME LABS

Connect with Russ

The Lean Lab

The Lean Lab is a nonprofit that aims to turn Kansas City into a world-renowned hub for education innovation. 4.0’s local partnership with The Lean Lab includes generous support from the Kauffman Foundation.

Katie Boody

“A fourth generation Kansas City native, raised by two community organizers, I grew up with the belief that the best way to create lasting change is to pull on the assets of our community. I believe our school system is in drastic need of reimagination, and that we can build the future of KC schools alongside our parents, students, and teachers.” — KATIE BOODY, CEO OF THE LEAN LAB, KANSAS CITY

Connect with Katie

Aditya Voleti

“I was most comfortable in my identity as an Indian-American among my immigrant and refugee students in the classroom. That experience taught me that true change comes when diverse communities are empowered to build their own solutions. I know first-hand, from my own experiences as a student and a teacher, that our school system is marvelously diverse, and therefore one-size-fits-all, big box solutions don’t work. That’s why I am beyond excited to partner with communities to develop innovative solutions to our most pressing problems.” — ADITYA VOLETI, COO OF THE LEAN LAB, KANSAS CITY

Connect with Aditya

How We’ve Supported Communities So Far: Cohort 1

Keaton Wadzinski, Caroline Hill, Mickey Millsap and John Raymond

Last year, we piloted the Community Catalyst Program and supported four awesome individuals in four cities to launch four organizations:

  • Caroline Hill in D.C.: DC Equity Lab
    Caroline’s focus on equity and principal leadership has influenced local education organizations and led to government and community partnerships to solve problems in education.
  • Keaton Wadzinski in Charlottesville: ReinventED Lab
    Keaton’s focus on student voice has led to partnership with a local district for a school design competition and partnership with UVA organizations to create a student-taught class on education innovation.
  • Mickey Millsap in Birmingham: k12 Lean Labs
    Mickey’s local focus has led to collaboration with TEDxBirmingham, TFA Alabama, continued support of two local ventures, and sponsorship by a major local foundation.
  • John Raymond in Austin: ImpactLab
    John’s focus on ventures has led to collaboration with local coworking spaces and incubators, and continued support of six Texas-based ventures and nine ventures total.

By the numbers since June 2015:

Three Lessons We’ve Learned

After our first cohort, we stepped back and saw three key themes to building community in a non cut-and-paste, locally responsive way.

Lesson 1: Culture is Key

Culture is the glue that binds our 4.0 community together. In order for our catalysts to build thriving ecosystems, they must build strong culture in their teams and killer buy-in from their community members. This ensures that when times get tough, they have the trust in each other they need to persevere and keep hustling.

Lesson 2: Be Hospitable

In order for our catalysts to be strong partners, they must feel valued. We embody hospitality at two levels:

  • For those we accepted to the program, we intend to treat them as part of our team.
  • For those we invited to interview day but did not accept into the program, we did not simply say ‘no, and go about your way,’ but have offered opportunities and feedback to allow them to continue making progress building thriving ecosystems.

Whenever we interact with applicants, partners or anyone else in our community, we treat them as if we’re investing in the ‘20-year version’ of them. This means prioritizing the long term relationship with an individual rather than being solely focused on the current project that person is working on.

Lesson 3: Empower, Don’t Manage

Encouraging teammates and community members to ‘act like an owner’ is another key value for 4.0 Schools. Catalysts get training, but they also get the ‘why’ behind our design & program decisions. That’s why we’ve decided to be totally open-source with all of our programs and tools. This ensures that they can learn from our experience and leverage our programming (Essentials and Startup Weekend Education) to build community and coach people, all while being responsive to local context.

Where We’re Headed From Here

Culture, hospitality and empowerment are just a few of the key lessons we’ve learned as we identify and train catalysts to build thriving ecosystems for education entrepreneurship. And because each community is different, Catalysts can customize their programming to support the needs they see and hear as they talk to their users with visions ranging from tackling structural racism and equity to empowering students to be part of the entrepreneurial process.

Layered on top of this work is the seed to a powerful network that is values- and vision-aligned. Imagine not only multiple Catalysts fostering the best environment for education entrepreneurship across the country, but connecting bold ideas and communities for the future of school across the country. What if we could surface all the education and ecosystem ideas people are trying, and share and build on top of them across all 13,000+ districts across the country? This is our vision for building the nation’s first genuinely open-source platform for innovation in schooling.

Want to get involved?

  1. If you haven’t been to a 4.0 Schools event or program, check out Startup Weekend Education or Essentials. Attending either (& organizing the former) are good 1st steps to gain an understanding of how we do this work.
  2. Share your good stuff with us at @4pt0schools and @davidthefu.

4.0 Schools helps bold people test big ideas about the future of school with families and students who want to be involved in those tests. We’re a non-profit that strives to put students and families at the center of what we do, and we’re committed to diversifying leadership in education. To learn more about how you can get involved, please visit us at, follow us at 4.0 Schools. Read more about what we’re doing right now at