“This seems pretty edgy for the education system in California.”

So noted this session’s moderator, Debra Dunn, after John Merris-Coots, Director of the California Career Resource Network, discussed his office’s collaboration with “these crazy guys from Roadtrip Nation.”

Indeed, it may seem unlikely that the government of California would turn to some surfing road-trippers to help reduce dropout rates and increase student achievement in public schools– but that is exactly what has happened. Roadtrip Nation delivers curricula to help students ‘find their own roads in life,’ and over the last three years, the practice of partnering with government agencies has enabled Roadtrip nation to reach 80,000 students across seventeen American states.

This session showcased a series of inspiring and unlikely educational partnerships in which “value flows both ways.”  Recurring themes included the importance of trust, of strong relationships, and of creativity, especially attention to “user-centered design” in education– with students as users, and therefore empathy with students as a necessary element of effective educational interventions.

As Madhav Chavan of Pratham noted with regard to his work in India, “the mass education system is failing the masses”– and this session highlight the ways that ‘dancing with elephants’ can work to change these systemic failures.  Elephant-sized government agencies and corporations are often slow moving and they struggle to tack around obstacles– but once set on a clear course, they can enact change with unparalleled power and momentum.

Madhav took the floor to highlight how Pratham’s collaboration with the government of Bihar has enabled the Indian state’s percentage of out-of-school girls aged 7 to 10 to decline from around 13% to 2% in the past six years.  One critical initiative to spark this change was a cash-transfer program that enabled girls to purchase bicycles to facilitate easier travel to and from school. “The government started giving us [Pratham] money for bicycles and uniforms.  They trusted us. This word trust keeps coming up– they should be able to trust us.”

From the perspective of the government representative, Pratham’s long-term commitment to the cause was a critical factor in building this trust: “In the beginning, it was just an NGO coming to us [the government], and normally the idea is that it is not implementable.  But they are here ready to work in partnership for a long time.”

After Pratham, we heard from Mary Anne Müller of Fundacion Origen, Chile. Mary Anne described her educational work with disadvantaged youth in Santiago: “We found out we have to take care of every aspect of life of these children.  Health issues, legal issues, emotional issues — nobody is trained at school to deal with their emotions, so, we teach meditation, we teach yoga…we really believe the environment affects people.”  Mary Anne insists that she has never been focused on academic outcomes, but there is a beautiful paradox here: “If you focus on the people, and not on the results, what do you get? Good results!”

Indeed, after working with Santiago’s disadvantaged youth for 17 years, Fundacion Origen’s track record is impressive: 70% of alums have gone to university; the school has a stunning 0% dropout rate, and there is reportedly no violence, bullying, or drugs at the school.   “To our total surprise,” says Mary Anne, “we became known as a school of academic excellence.”

At this point, Debra Dunn asked a provocative question: “Many people would think this is pretty out there– you are teaching meditation, yoga– surely this can’t be scaled?”

Mary Anne didn’t flinch.  “For years we thought, ‘what is our biggest asset?’ And it is our teachers.  So now we are training teachers.  And we tried the government…but now we’ve found the perfect virtuous triangle by working with a corporation, Natura, and with public schools.”

Natura sells cosmetics in Brazil — but recently developed a new product line that uses community-based salespeople to sell environmentally-friendly educational products (eg notebooks) to generate revenue that pays for Fundacion Origen to train public school teachers in Chile.

“There is value at every point along the supply chain. The sales force is fully incentivized around education- not only are they selling products related to education and generating funds for training teachers, but also the sales force is building relationships in the community and meeting teachers and visiting schools.”

So, to review: a Brazilian cosmetics corporation helps at-risk youth in Chile receive holistic education. The government of an Indian state notorious for corruption and inefficient bureaucracy helps an NGO boost girls’ enrollments by purchasing bicycles. And some friends from California drive an RV across the country, get inspired, and then work with state governments to spread this inspiration to tens of thousands of at-risk American youth.
These are the stories that come to light at the Skoll World Forum, and it is exciting to think of the ripple effects that can come about through their retelling: also present at this panel were Sydney Schaef and Sarah Lowe of Kujali (Tanzania), Eric Schultz of Citizen Schools (USA), and a representative from BRAC (Bangladesh). I think it is safe to assume that each of these educational  innovators walked away from this panel with some new ideas about the ways that unlikely partnerships might help them scale up their impact.