Published July 25, 2023

The San Mateo County Office of Education held a unique experience this summer through the Launch Institute, where 46 educators from seven local education agencies engaged in experiential practices to "Leap, Learn, and Lead" their campuses toward deepening student connections and aligning systems to support youth identity, belonging, and agency.

Teachers, counselors, site classified staff, site administrators, district administrators, and County Office of Education staff gathered with 11 middle and high school student “lead trainers” and other adult facilitators at the Redwood Glen Camp and Conference Center for the institute. The week’s mantra, as brought forward from a participant, and quickly adopted by the group was, “The hard work IS the heart work.” 

During the first two and a half days, participants and leaders dug deeply into activities aligned to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) domains; Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making. These activities, led by and with student leaders, gave space for participants to reflect on how their own histories, layers of identities, and personal experiences lead to how they show up with and for students, providing an amazingly deep and rich time of connection and learning. 

On the third day, participants were led through creating and intentionally designing experiences for safe and supportive education systems for all students and staff. This allowed the community of educators to use, discuss, and plan for implementing the resources and tools provided. The last two days were dedicated to training staff and students on how to engage in restorative practices, which allow people to repair any harm they may have caused. By focusing on relationships, respect, responsibility, repair, and reintegration, restorative practices allows all to learn instead of using punitive responses.

Throughout the week, participants also had opportunities for deeper connections at camp, including nightly bonfires (with s’mores), arts and crafts, daily hikes, games, and sharing meals together. These connections were called forward as practices aligned with how our students feel seen and valued.  

Each day included a “gratitude circle,” where participants reflected on the work of the day. Participants shared gratitude for the students leading the work to design education that works for all, for the opportunity to be with colleagues and students to share in the work, for bonfires and meals together, for the space to dig deeply into who we are and what “blind spots” were revealed that can get in our way, for quiet times, for deeper connections, for laughter, for energy, and for the commitment to bring this work back to more people.

Quotes from the week included:  “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a space with students talking about education. We need more of this.”  “Our hearts were connected and we learned deeply.”  “I realized as a teacher that it’s the small things like saying hi to a student that can make a huge difference.” 

Planning has already begun to do another Launch Institute next summer and reunion of our first attendee group in this coming winter. In addition, districts in attendance have been connecting with county team members to build out the scope of work for their campuses headed into the coming year.