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Kansas City's Lean Lab Looks To Entrepreneurs To Improve Education

Lean Lab

The Sprint Accelerator, is a sleek, modern communal work space occupying two floors of an old brick building in Kansas City’s Crossroads neighborhood. It has white board walls and tables for entrepreneurs to sketch out their ideas. It features massive oddly shaped chairs, lots of sunlight, and the startup-requisite game room featuring indoor shuffleboard and foosball.

The people working in the rent-free office space change day to day. But two mainstay entrepreneurs toiling in the Sprint space are Katie Boody and Carrie Markel. They’re frustrated former public school teachers who have now devoted their time to making teaching a more appealing field. Boody says the job can drain young teachers quickly.

“It’s become a profession where you’re so stressed. I mean, teachers are working 70, 80-hour weeks. And the focus is on the student as it should be, to get the students where they need to be,” she says. “However, because of that, I think you do see that it becomes unsustainable.”

She and Markel founded a non-profit called The Lean Lab which helps educators and startup founders build their ideas for solving educational problems in Kansas City schools.

Both Boody and Markel participated in Teach for America in the city. But they say that they felt burdened by some elements of working in public and charter schools.

This summer, the Lean Lab gave fellowships to five people with ideas to improve education in Kansas City. In July, the organization hosted its first Demo Day event, for their fellows to show off their ideas.

”People come in with nothing likely more than an early stage idea, and we help them flesh them out a prototype,” Boody says.

The Lean Lab helps get those early stage ideas into the classroom, where fellows can test them on students.

“We’ll help support them and partner them with mentors that are industry-specific and establish relationships,” says Boody.

The fellows brought The Lean Lab ideas that impact education both inside and outside of the classroom. One is an online tool that allows school districts to manage enrollment in English language learning courses. Another is a mobile app that lets teachers correct assignments without paper. And one is a mentorship program aimed at girls of color.

Boody says the breadth of the fellows’ ideas show that there are many areas of education in need of improvement. In all, the five Lean Lab fellows have worked with more than 2,200 students as they’ve grown their ideas.

“Many, many researchers and universities use students as guinea pigs,”  says Michele Foster, executive director of UMKC's Urban Education Research Center.

“Whether it’s [textbook] companies or independent researchers or university folks, that’s a fairly common phenomenon. But whether that solves anybody’s problem – especially students’ and the school districts’ problems – that’s debatable.”

Still, the goal of Lean Lab, Boody says, is to try to give teachers the tools they need to improve education, and retain skilled teachers that school districts and administrators can’t.

”’How do we make this profession more sustainable?’ I think is the end goal,” she says. “Like I said, I would love to go back into the classroom in some capacity someday. But, (we’re) realizing that we don’t necessarily, as a city, have the tools to keep great teachers in the classroom at large for a really long time.” 

So, in addition to incubating young companies and nonprofits, the Lean Lab might be able to bring some disillusioned educators back to the classroom. 

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