Like all startup stories, this one begins with an idea.

Jennifer Faircloth is an occupational therapist with High Desert Education Service District. She works with children 5 and younger with disabilities or developmental delays to help them get ready for school, either one-on-one in their homes or at their preschools.

“The stress levels for parents with kids with special needs are much higher,” Fairchild said. She wondered: What if there was a class for parents to help manage their stress and learn strategies to work through frustrations and help their children? If the parent felt more supported, wouldn’t that benefit the child?

Faircloth is one of the first to participate in i4 — for Ignite, Investigate, Innovate, Incubate — a new process at High Desert where staff members can pitch ideas and compete for funding.

It’s the show “Shark Tank,” but for educational purposes.

“These educators are learning about what it means to be entrepreneurial, to see a problem and solve it,” said Anna Higgins, director of High Desert’s new innovation department that launched last year. “What does the private sector already know about this type of work … and what can we learn that we can bridge back to education?”

High Desert is a publicly funded agency that provides various services to Central Oregon school districts, from legal and financial advice to special education and career and technical education support.

Participants in i4 get help refining their ideas at workshops with local entrepreneurs before pitching to a five-person panel, including High Desert leaders and people from the private sector. At the end of a workshop in January, a large whiteboard behind the conference table was covered with notes and tips and takeaways: “what’s the ask,” “too broad?” “make it feel black + white” and “how much??”

Three of the first four ideas pitched received funding. One will set aside time in the school day for elementary and middle schoolers to focus on social and emotional development, a trendy topic in education. Another will help schools and nonprofits measure how effective they are in their work with young people.

High Desert’s board has set aside $50,000 for the year to fund programs that come out of i4. It is currently only open to High Desert employees, though Higgins said in the future it could include employees of local school districts. Another possibility is outside funding, even private money, to help start or grow these new programs.

But Higgins said she wants i4 to be about more than money, instead to signal a “cultural shift,” where educators feel free to innovate and try new things and refine as they go.

In essence, to think like a startup.

Preston Callicott is CEO of Five Talent in Bend and coached i4 participants at the January workshop. He said he was struck by how little money they were asking for — in his world, funding requests come with a few more zeros.

“One of the aha! moments was (when we asked), ‘Why are you asking for $10,000? It seems like a lot of work for $10,000.’ And they said, ‘That’s what we think we can get,’” he said. “They’d been beaten down so hard on budgets that asking for what (they) really need is almost a foregone conclusion — they’re not going to do it.”

He encouraged participants to not let budget realities limit the scope of their ideas. “If the story is compelling enough, there are other sources of capital.”

Learning to tell that story was another challenge, said Molly Renner, owner of Bend-based Sublime Creative Agency, who has been to two of these pitch workshops. She said participants often come with something like a grant application — here is my idea, here is what it is going to cost.

“The biggest thing is the why. A lot of these folks have the facts on this product and the features and the benefits, but they really haven’t gotten down to why an investor should invest in it, and why should they care,” she said. “The why behind it is really a big deal.”

‘A different bottom line’

Oregon schools face plenty of challenges. The state is home to one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, with below-average funding and persistent achievement gaps. Former Gov. John Kitzhaber introduced major reforms intended to shake up the system. For her part, Gov. Kate Brown announced late last year she would appoint an education innovation officer to improve graduation rates.

Notions of innovation and incubating outside-the-box ideas were a common theme in High Desert’s most recent strategic plan, said Superintendent John Rexford, and led to the development of i4. Of course, education is not a business, he said, but could you borrow a private-sector model when it comes to allocating scarce resources to improve results?

“Ultimately we’re not trying to create value for stockholders, we’re trying to create outcomes for students. Our bottom line is a different bottom line,” said Rexford, who gets the final say on whether pitches receive funding.

Faircloth, the occupational therapist, had her idea for a class for parents of children with special needs years ago but didn’t know how to get it started. Her pitch at High Desert included a financial argument: If these students are supported early on, at school and at home, some may transition out of special education, saving school districts thousands of dollars on costly services over the course of their education.

Faircloth got $4,659 to cover supplies, facility rentals and child care for four eight-week sessions, the first of which started last week.

“I’ll be curious to see how much traction (i4) gets,” said Julie Gess-Newsome, an associate dean at Oregon State University-Cascades who works with teachers in training. On the one hand, she said, encouraging people to try new things can be empowering for them, but too much competition could be bad for morale.

Gess-Newsome sees a different benefit to the i4 process: encouraging educators to promote the good work they do.

“Teachers and teaching and education has gotten in many cases a bad rap, and an undeservedly bad rap,” she said. A pitch that corrects that, she said, could be the greatest product of all.

— Reporter: 541-617-7837,

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