Realizing a School Leader’s Vision for an Innovative Signature Program

Transforming a PK-8 school into a regional hub for creativity and innovation using a human-centered design approach – during a pandemic.

The Challenge: Design a signature program that deepens a school’s creative and entrepreneurial culture and extends it into the broader community.

The Outcome:  A compelling and comprehensive program design for the Inly Innovation Center, a place where middle school students collaborate and learn together with practicing entrepreneurs.

Nestled on a winding and scenic road in the seaside town of Scituate, Massachusetts, on the south shore of Boston, Inly School is an incredible place full of creative minds with big ideas to change the world. Inly is an independent, Montessori-based school with innovative programs for toddlers, preschool and K–8 students. It is a place full of curiosity, joy, and empowerment. Yet Inly is one of the South Shore’s best kept secrets. While it is located along busy Rt. 123, most of the facility is up the hill off quiet Watch Hill Drive, a road few travel. Unless someone is actively looking for a PK-8 school for their child, many in the region are unaware of this amazing school.

In 2019, Donna Milani Luther, Head of Inly School, began to formulate a vision for a new and highly innovative signature program. The school has seen substantial growth and needed to replace its middle school, and Donna saw the opportunity to take advantage of the need for a new facility to create a unique and inspiring new signature program, that would not only benefit Inly’s middle school students, but could have substantial impact on the south shore community, potentially making Inly a well-known hub for creativity, innovation, and economic growth in the region. (As of this time, the details of Donna’s signature program are still under wraps as Inly prepares to move forward on the next phase of the project.)

To further explore Donna’s vision and assess the viability of the project, Inly engaged EXPLO Elevate to conduct a feasibility study and conceptual design for the signature program. After understanding Donna’s broad vision and desired outcomes, EXPLO Elevate created a unique approach to tackle the project utilizing human-centered design techniques coupled with building a design team that included outside advisors. One of the advisors had decades of experience in innovative education and teaching and learning practices; another was a computer science professor and entrepreneur who has led several EdTech start-ups; a third had deep experience leading corporate innovation teams before becoming a high school innovation coach and teacher. These advisors joined Donna and three Trustees on a Project Advisory Committee, collectively providing oversight and input to the project.

The Project Launches, then COVID Strikes

The project started in February 2020. A project kick-off meeting was held at Inly with a very enthusiastic and engaged Project Advisory Committee on March 12th. However, just two days prior, on March 10th, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared a State of Emergency as it was becoming evident that the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to take hold in Massachusetts. Stay at home orders were issued by Governor Baker on March 23.

Initially it was unclear as to whether the project should continue due to the uncertainty of the pandemic and the impact it might have on the execution of the feasibility study and the fundraising for the signature program. The project called for in-person visits to schools and other organizations which would not be able to take place. Donna and EXPLO Elevate decided that the project could proceed using an entirely virtual research approach, allowing Inly to continue assessing the program’s feasibility during the pandemic lock-down period, and be poised to move forward when the pandemic eased.

One of the facilitated sessions in the Kick-off meeting was an assessment of the key stakeholders impacted by the program. The project team then further developed this workshop output into a full-fledged stakeholder analysis, complete with personas, describing each potential user of the new program and their needs. The stakeholder analysis also informed the interview list for the research phase of the project.

The project team conducted over 30 interviews and researched 18 organizations around the country to gather ideas and input relevant to the design of the signature program. The insights from the interviews started to crystalize and a conceptual model of the new center was developed. The team articulated a case for action and was able to paint a vivid picture of the new program by writing a fictional newspaper story, dated in the year 2024, looking backward and recounting the success of the initiative and its impact on the community. This is a technique EXPLO has used in the past to imagine one or more possible future realities for a new initiative.

I have been extremely impressed with the high quality of EXPLO Elevate from our very first encounter. I needed help defining a strategic new signature program for our school, and EXPLO Elevate responded with the right team, the right approach, and a network of expert advisors that guided us to an outcome which will have an enduring impact on our future. I’m forever grateful!

– Donna Milani Luther, Head of School, Inly School

Accompanying this vision and case for action was a detailed financial model, examining both the benefits and costs of the program. The team also created an implementation roadmap that would allow the school to continue to move forward despite the COVID pandemic, outlining three phases: Phase 1, pre-vaccine, Phase 2, when in-person interactions could begin again, and Phase 3, when the new program becomes fully operational.

Despite the pandemic, the project was able to be executed with minimal disruption to its planned approach. Extensive remote research and analysis were conducted by the project team, almost entirely over Zoom video calls. In preparation for the final presentation to the board, the Project Advisory Committee met again virtually in late July. After presenting the team’s finding several advisors expressed great enthusiasm for the program and the positive outcomes that could be realized for Inly and its students, as evidenced by this statement from one of the outside project advisors:

“It’s incredibly exciting for me to see this and to start to envision what this will look like. I think the marketing of this will be rather easy… I think it’s super-exciting and I applaud the vision of Donna… I have goosebumps thinking about this.”

The final findings were presented to Inly’s Trustees in late August, 2020. Trustee Charles Cella, founding managing director of Strong Force Innovation Portfolio, remarked “I’m incredibly impressed by the quality of this deliverable. This matches the quality of work I’ve seen in my business career from high-end management consultancies.”

As school reopened this fall, Inly had its hands full ensuring a safe return to in-person learning, but Donna knows that a thriving school means building for a thriving future. Now equipped with the road map provided by EXPLO Elevate, Inly is poised to take another leap forward. Donna’s willingness to continue to move forward on this future-forward program despite the onset of the pandemic is a testament to both her visionary leadership and resiliency.