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by Jim Kline. As Senior Director, Late Stage Incubation at CityBridge Education, Jim supports entrepreneurs ready to launch innovative school models and solutions that advance equity and opportunity for all children.

The Capital Experience Lab, or CapX, was born from the problem that students were set up to be passive learners in a city that was designed for active, deep learning. Why have students learn solely from a textbook when you can arrange weekly trips to cultural institutions like the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, the NIH, and so many more special places? Throughout the past five years, the CapX team has been creating day-long to summer-long pilots, building their academic and student support model along the way, while serving over 300 students in the process. They’ve garnered national attention and established deep relationships with local parents and community leaders. 

We at CityBridge quickly jumped on board to support their efforts, led by Lanette Dailey-Reese and Alison Gillmeister. We supported their charter school application, firmly convinced that CapX needed to be a school. Over and over again, parents are telling us they want more active, engaging experiences for their children. Some of the city’s most competitive schools are expeditionary learning schools that prioritize projects and hands-on, active learning. The CityBridge team was undeniably disappointed when CapX’s charter application was denied due to concerns about demand, but we were so incredibly proud of the work that Lanette, Alison, and the entire CapX team accomplished over the years. 

I’ll never forget my next meeting with Lanette and the CapX team—a true demonstration of head and heart. As usual, they started with a glows and grows protocol from the charter application process, wanting to document every piece of feedback they received. We spent a half hour at the whiteboard just listing the feedback, categorizing the data points, and creating space for the open questions. The CapX is a team of learners; everything is about learning—including disappointing news like this. We then pivoted to heart—creating space to reflect, provide shout-outs, emote, and talk about the people who needed to get some extra special support in the coming days. And we ended the coaching check-in with an open-ended question: “What’s next?”

Moving forward, I knew CapX had a few different options ahead of them: wait and apply again to the PCSB next year, pursue a nonprofit after-school program for students, build a teacher professional development program, or try and launch their school within an existing school. As their coach, I knew I had to ask them the right questions to help guide them in their decision-making process: 

  • How do we stay true to our vision and core values?
  • How do we assess the team’s capacity for each of these different pathways?
  • How do we co-design this new phase of building with the founding team?

I knew I had to play a slightly different role in coaching the CapX team through this transition point. First, I wanted to frame and open the space for their team to grapple with the decisions ahead of them, laying all of the pros and cons on the table in a way that made it exciting. In many ways, this juncture was like their early days at CapX—deciding on their theory of change and mission/vision. I also wanted to balance head and heart—appealing to both a strong project plan and also reminding their team of the powerful vision they had for students in DC. 

theory of change is a process and a product for strategic planning and thinking. In our Incubator Toolkit we offer a simple graphic organizer for teams to write down the causal links between the actions they take and the outcomes they’re aiming for.

The team ultimately decided to move forward with a school within an existing school model and found a perfect partner with Friendship Public Charter School. One of Friendship’s middle schools—Blow Pierce Middle School—welcomed CapX as a school partner to provide an additional program for families to choose from. In August 2022, CapX will open its doors to 60 6th graders at Blow Pierce Middle School, working to ensure that their students are thriving and experiencing the best of DC’s cultural institutions through their classes. 

In reflecting on my coaching this year, I learned the power of embracing obstacles as opportunities. The CapX team continued to demonstrate that they were laser focused on their student outcomes—and didn’t let implementation barriers like charter authorization stop them from writing their version of the future for hundreds of children in DC for years to come. Sometimes, when we’re feeling stuck and defeated, we should gather our supporters, go to a white board, and start remembering why we started in the first place.

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