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Human Restoration Project Awarded Education Innovation and Research Grant to Reimagine Education

Chris McNutt
Nick Covington
December 7, 2023
Human Restoration Project announces Education and Innovation Research grant from US Dept of Education

We are honored and excited to announce that Human Restoration Project (HRP), in conjunction with Orchard View Schools, Reeths-Puffer Schools, Open Way Learning, and the University of Virginia have been selected for the US Department of Education’s Education Innovation and Research (EIR) grant program. This early-phase award allows HRP and its partners to reimagine what school could be through “school within a school” programs in western Michigan public schools.

Introducing Third Coast Learning Collaborative

(A lighthouse watches over stormy seas above text that reads Third Coast Learning Collaborative)

Our project aims to introduce an inquiry-driven school model called the Third Coast Learning Collaborative (TCLC). TCLC creates a unique educational experience by combining two key components: interdisciplinary project-based learning, where students work on hands-on projects that align across various integrated subjects, and portfolio-based, feedback-driven assessment, which moves away from traditional letter grades toward ongoing self-assessment and feedback. Students in collaborative cohorts engage in multi-week projects that connect learning to their local community, allowing them to apply their knowledge in real-world contexts.

Starting with a pilot cohort with 100 6th graders at Orchard View Middle School and scaling to multiple grade levels at Orchard View and Reeths-Puffer Schools, students will engage in a multifaceted interdisciplinary learning experience with a strong emphasis on place, community, collaboration, and creativity.

The project focuses on addressing the challenges faced by 6th-8th grade students, such as declining social-emotional well-being, the “school engagement cliff”, academic performance, and attendance rates in middle school. By implementing the TCLC model, the project aims to reverse these trends and improve student engagement, well-being, and academic achievement. It also plans to expand this model to other districts and grade levels in the future. Our goal is to demonstrate that models like this are not only transformative for traditional and typical public schools, but possible and scalable across the United States in multiple contexts/demographics.

The project aims to address equity issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among underserved and marginalized communities. It emphasizes culturally responsive pedagogy and personalized learning experiences to ensure that all students can thrive. 

Furthermore, TCLC seeks to bring about systemic changes in education by moving away from traditional teaching methods and fostering skills essential for the 21st century job market. It places a strong emphasis on autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which are known to promote student well-being and academic success. It emphasizes the importance of student voice and provides support to learners, particularly those at the margins. It offers career-driven pathways and partnerships with local community colleges to ensure that students have access to postsecondary opportunities.

Building Blocks

The Third Coast Learning Collaborative is the result of multiple years of student focus groups and teacher professional development occurring in the Orchard View School District. In our conversations, it became clear early on that students wanted more meaningful, authentic opportunities to learn at school – and engagement was directly tied to their ability in impacting the world around them. 

In addition, this work would not be possible without innovative educators and administrators willing to reflect on rethinking school. In cooperation, we have been working together to build pedagogical strategies that change systems to positively impact young people, as well as sustain teachers as they retool their classrooms, leading to this grant application/acceptance.  

Orchard View Middle School (OVMS) is launching the TCLC pilot program in 2024-2025 with four teachers leading interdisciplinary project-based learning. Additionally, two other instructors will continue teaching traditional sixth grade classes, serving as a control group.

OVMS has been restructured to accommodate the “school within a school” concept for sixth grade. The sixth-grade program operates on a separate daily schedule and has a designated space, which includes a "Fab Lab" for inter-class collaboration and provides access to the library, which has been redesigned to accommodate all 100 students simultaneously when needed.

Reeths-Puffer Logo

Reeths-Puffer Intermediate (RPI) will scale the TCLC pilot program (beginning in 2025-2026) with a similar cohort, structure, and control group. Partnerships between these school districts will be vital as we share practices, learn from each other, and grow a comprehensive learning community. Our goal is to connect each party together to build a flourishing learning community that can be sustained for long after this grant process.

Human Restoration Project (HRP) is a non-profit organization based in Iowa, founded and led by former public school teachers Chris McNutt and Nick Covington. HRP focuses on advocating for a progressive, human-centered education system. They conduct in-depth school analysis projects across the United States and internationally, providing resources to students, educators, and administrators to embrace human-centered learning. HRP operates at three levels of change-making: informing about the need for progressive education, guiding educators through materials and professional development, and growing the movement through coalition building, networking, and grassroots advocacy. HRP has extensive experience working with schools nationwide in redesign efforts, including curriculum development, assessment systems, and student-focused schedules. HRP has received multiple grants to redesign schools and develop interdisciplinary curriculum while researching the impact of progressive education on youth.

Open Way Learning (OWL) is a North Carolina-based education non-profit with a mission to co-design innovative school cultures. OWL believes that all learners can make a positive impact on the world, and they work with schools, districts, and organizations to create sustainable cultures of authentic, learner-centered innovation. OWL advocates for collaboration through an open-source model, engaging education stakeholders both within and outside the field. They utilize a human-centered design process, emphasizing empathy and co-designing localized prototypes that are refined in context. OWL promotes innovation through a 100% opt-in approach of crowdsourced sharing and networking, building collective efficacy to sustain and scale innovations over time.

The University of Virginia (UVA) will serve as the evaluation partner. Dr. Tara Hofkens will assume the role of Evaluation Director in the project, offering leadership in conceptual, methodological, and substantive aspects of the evaluation. Her role includes maintaining high-quality standards and supervising all project tasks. Dr. Hofkens, currently a Research Professor at the University of Virginia, brings extensive experience in systematic evaluations, including an EIR Early Phase project, and has six years of expertise in studying school-based interventions for children and youth. Dr. Tish Jennings will serve as an Evaluation Investigator, contributing her expertise to the development of implementation rubrics and conducting interviews and focus groups with teachers and students. Specifically, she will collaborate with TCLC to establish fidelity indicators in their model that can be measured through various methods.

The research questions for the UVA study involve a randomized design to assess the impact of the TCLC program compared to traditional curriculum within the same schools. These questions encompass both implementation and impact aspects:

  1. How does participation in TCLC affect students' engagement in learning?
  2. What is the influence of TCLC on teacher-student and peer relationships?
  3. What is the impact of TCLC on students' achievement, attendance, well-being, and emotional and behavioral problems?
  4. To what extent do student demographic characteristics moderate the impact of TCLC on student outcomes?
  5. To what extent are the effects of TCLC on student outcomes mediated by (a) the quality of teacher-student and peer relationships and/or (b) student engagement in learning?

We suggest that students in TCLC will show higher engagement in school, have better relationships with teachers and peers, experience greater academic achievement, improved psychological well-being, reduced absenteeism, and fewer behavioral and emotional problems compared to students in traditional middle school models.


We look forward to sharing more information and progress on this important work, and are grateful for support from the US Department of Education as well as our community. This award is part of a number of projects addressing social-emotional learning, student engagement, help for rural communities, and STEM. It is 100% directly funded through federal funding totaling $3,995,537 beyond in-kind matching funds. Through joint efforts of Orchard View Schools, Reeths-Puffer Schools, Human Restoration Project, Open Way Learning, and the University of Virginia, all parties will contribute in-kind time to make the project a success at an in-kind rate of $429,173.

The contents of this article were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Program. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

An image of a white man with a brown goatee and glasses.
Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
An image of a white man with a brown goatee and glasses.
Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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