Small Communities, Big Ideas: Fast-Tracking Innovation for Equity in Education

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education for some 50 million U.S. public school students and their families, in ways we won’t fully understand for years to come.1 In low-income and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, it created a cascade of crises grounded in deep-seated and largely unchallenged inequities—from housing and food insecurity to lack of computers and WiFi access. Yet as teachers, administrators and school staff stretched themselves to the breaking point to support vulnerable students and families, a larger conversation in educational circles was brewing: Could the pandemic-induced disruption offer a unique opportunity to reinvent K-12 education? Could schools emerge from COVID-19 more inclusive, equitable and culturally responsive?

For Genentech, these questions were compelling. We have long focused our charitable contributions and local partnerships on initiatives that advance diversity in STEM fields, and we are deeply committed to equity in healthcare and education. As the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and a first-generation college student, I know firsthand the pivotal role education and workforce development programs played in my childhood and trajectory from Yale undergrad to philanthropic strategist at Genentech. I also understand the stigma associated with being a recipient of these programs, and the critical need for them to be equitable, culturally responsive and engage communities as partners and co-creators in asset-based approaches.

Could the pandemic-induced disruption offer a unique opportunity to reinvent K-12 education? Could schools emerge from COVID-19 more inclusive, equitable and culturally responsive?

These priorities were top of mind for me and my corporate giving colleagues in the spring of 2020. Through conversations with local teachers, educators, parents and students, we learned that schools in underserved communities were doing heroic work innovating, iterating and improvising to keep pupils and families safe and healthy, provide extra support to the most vulnerable and continue their educational mission in the face of unprecedented challenges. While each school district was unique, they were all working to address systemic inequities and barriers to educational advancement exacerbated by COVID-19. They were brimming with ideas and novel approaches to address these issues, but there was no mechanism to share learnings or scale successes.

Designing Solutions

We knew that educational specialists in “design thinking”—a problem-solving approach emphasizing empathy, iteration and end-user co-creation—had been exploring how to help schools navigate uncertainty long before COVID-19. Upon seeing the potential impact this human-centered approach could have in these communities, we teamed up with the experts at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (Stanford to explore the possibilities. For over ten years, the’s K12 Lab has been bringing design tools and approaches to elementary, middle and high schools, and their team was already hard at work helping educators navigate complex challenges brought about by the pandemic. As Sam Seidel, Director of K-12 Strategy and Research at the framed it, “design thinking can help school districts better understand the strengths and needs of families, and use those insights to co-create new programs that ameliorate immediate crises exacerbated by the pandemic, while also bringing creative new approaches to addressing long-term inequities in the education system.”

Our talks with Stanford culminated in Reach for the Upside, an innovative collaboration between Genentech, the Genentech Foundation and the to help underserved Northern California school districts fast-track innovation to increase equity in education. Through Reach for the Upside, Genentech and the Genentech Foundation provided $3.2 million in funding, and Stanford delivered their design-thinking expertise and tools to those selected to participate. A pool of 35 organizations were invited to apply, and ultimately 11 design teams were chosen consisting of 8 school districts and 3 education-focused nonprofits that support school districts. We focused on a mix of urban, suburban and rural schools with a significant percentage of high-need, BIPOC students and a track record of innovation and leadership. Ultimately, projects funded through this initiative have the potential to positively impact 442,000 Northern California students, more than half of whom are BIPOC, as well as their teachers, families and communities in 31 school districts across 16 counties.

No one has ever asked me what I thought about what I’m learning. This is the first time—you all are creating something and asking my opinion. This is incredible!

In February, we launched Reach for the Upside through a series of seven biweekly “design-sprint” workshops, conducted over Zoom, with participating teams of administrators, teachers, parents, students and community stakeholders. The teams received coaching from Stanford instructors and experts on best education practices during the pandemic from Ed Trust West, culturally responsive family engagement from NYU Metro Center, measuring program success from Results Lab and social and emotional wellness from the California Department of Education. We challenged the teams to think big—and that is exactly what they did.

Finding the Upside

Snapshot of Two Projects

Diverse stakeholders transforming communities

Taking a step back from the daily pressures of COVID-19-era education, the design teams worked out new ways to address issues causing real harm: issues like racial inequity in special education, a severe shortage of teachers of color, mistreatment of Native American students and the burden of intergenerational poverty. For many teams, the most critical part of the process was the empathy work, like going into communities to ask students, parents and teachers what they needed and to listen to them share their experiences with racism, poverty and trauma. By keeping those impacted at the center of the design process, we were able to elevate the voice of teachers, parents, students and other community members and empower them to design authentic solutions that address their specific needs. The result: 11 transformative and deeply human projects (see sidebars), funded with grants for the 2021-2022 school year and founded on the belief that things can get better if people have a true voice in the policies and programs that impact them.

One of many moments during the workshops that stays with me: A student said, “No one has ever asked me what I thought about what I’m learning. This is the first time—you all are creating something and asking my opinion. This is incredible!”

We think that that student, and all the students, parents, teachers, administrators and community stakeholders who participated are incredible. We are deeply grateful to the Stanford and our nonprofit partners for making the launch of Reach for the Upside a success. We hope that educators, policymakers and funders throughout California and across the country will be as inspired as we are by this work and join us in our mission to promote equity and opportunity for all.