June 3, 2019

What Sparks Innovation Across a Network of Schools?

By Transcend

For one network, the answer is hard work, radical collaboration, deep reflection, cutting edge research, detailed planning, and impassioned implementation. Here’s the story of how those things came together this year in Chicago, IL.

Loomis K-5 ideating around bringing a graduate aim to life

This year Transcend partnered with Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) in Chicago, IL, to bring nine different communities through a journey to reimagine school.

We did this work in two phases. In the Fall, Transcend and the CICS Innovation Team worked closely with members of the leadership teams from Distinctive Schools, Civitas Education Partners, Chicago RISE, and Empowered Community Schools, four of the School Management Organizations (SMOs) that CICS authorizes. Together, this small group conducted empathy interviews with students, explored future trends and marketplace demands, and crafted and honed a set of network-wide graduate aims. This team of leaders coalesced around four powerful aims for its graduates—Changemakers, Joyful Problem Solvers, Navigators of a Changing World, and Identity Affirmed.

Phase two of this work began in January, when we brought nine school-based design teams from nine schools across the network together for our first Convening. This cohort gathered three times across the winter and spring to engage with research on the science of learning, to make meaning of empathy work with families, teachers, and students, to seek inspiration from schools and other organizations across Chicago, to build out ideas for new student experiences that drive towards bold new graduate aims, and to create plans to test out these ideas with young people. Teams built skill in human-centered design, storytelling, applying research to their designs, and piloting innovations in their communities.

A team conducts an audit of how their graduate aims are currently being lived out on their campus

We noticed that many teams were drawn specifically to the graduate aim of Identity Affirmed. Drawing inspiration from promising models like Valor Collegiate, a handful of schools designed and piloted the idea of having dedicated time for students to come together to share about and reflect upon who they are as individuals, and to meaningfully connect across lines of difference. This took various forms across schools—from “Identity Hour” at Loomis K-5, to staff and student “circles” at CICS Prairie. Many teams also chose to have their entire staff engage in deep empathy work so they, too, could understand the why, what, when, and how of identity work.

When the nine teams came together for a final Convening on May 14-15, 2019, they shared results of their pilots and received feedback from other schools in the cohort on their plans to carry the work forward. We also welcomed several later-stage Transcend partners for a “Lessons from the Field” session. These school innovators from Intrinsic, nXu, Achievement First Greenfield, nXu, and Civitas Community Impact Experience (CCIE) shared about their school models, as well as lessons learned in leading innovation.

We closed our final Convening with a student panel, a deep dive into CICS’ graduate aims, and a celebration showcase featuring the hard work of all nine teams. In our survey feedback, one participant shared that the most salient experience of this journey was,

Standing together in circles to see the faces of all of the other educators working with us. I also think the fact that we had school leaders, network leaders teachers and even CEOs all learning about and participating in the same learning. It was humbling and uplifting simultaneously!

The Transcend team is immensely proud of the hard work of all nine design teams, and is grateful to have worked alongside the CICS Innovation team to make this experience a success. As we step back and consider what this experience has to say to others who are driving forward similar work, we are mindful of…

  • the importance of doing work in community with others,
  • how difficult yet crucial it is to hold space for the “next” even when there’s so much happening in the day to day, and
  • the power of identity work and doing it with both students and adults.

We’re excited to follow along as the CICS’ Innovation work continues to unfold!


Transcend supports communities to create and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

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