The Challenge

Design a DIY approach to help school leaders in resource-constrained public schools transform school culture and create deeper learning experiences for their students.


School leaders have applied their learnings from the program, making significant progress for change by experimenting with customized education plans, launching internship programs, or starting programs that amplify student voices. By the end of 2016, 164 school leaders of over 114,000 students had participated in the fellowship program.


School Retool is a professional development fellowship that helps school leaders create change in their school using small, scrappy experiments called “hacks.”

There’s a lot of excitement in the education sector about the need to equip students with skills like critical thinking, collaboration, and communication, to prepare them for a global, innovation-driven economy. But that’s easier said than done. Major changes are needed to move from a decades-old model towards creating new ways to educate students. Schools and their leaders, particularly in low-income contexts, often lack the necessary resources and support.

But given the right tools, school leaders can be the key to bringing this much-needed change to their schools. Knowing this, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation partnered with IDEO and the Stanford to create School Retool, a four-month-long professional development fellowship that trains principals to take a do-it-yourself approach to school change by conducting small, scrappy experiments called “hacks.”

The best part: They use the resources they already have available to address their schools’ needs now, without waiting for external funding or assistance. School Retool is available to principals at public schools where 60 percent or more of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, which is a common measure of poverty. The School Retool program provides research-based strategies for improving student outcomes, as well as training and one-on-one coaching on how to redesign school culture through easily achievable changes.

A Scaled Approach

School Retool addresses a common challenge in creating change across schools: Each school has its own people, culture, and needs, so programs need to be flexible. The fellowship helps school leaders define their aspirations, and provides them with inspiration through “Big Ideas” that have proven to be successful in different contexts in education. It then supports them to start small with hacks that help them learn how to implement these ideas in their own school. The program scales through regional cohorts of principals who learn from each other as they go through a process of setting goals, designing hacks, reflecting on the learning and progress, and making improvements to the next iteration.

Small Steps Toward Big Change

As School Retool has rolled out at schools across the country over the past two years, it’s becoming evident that small changes are adding up to major progress, and that the small hacks approach is helping leaders go from planning to doing. Take, for example, Marthaa Torres, the principal of a low-income San Francisco high school who started with a small experiment with one struggling student, trying to create a more personalized learning plan for him. “The hacking approach is a framework that will help me eventually get to the kind of school that I’m trying to create,” Torres said. To build on the learnings of her “hack,” she created and expanded a personalized coaching program for the student’s peer group of older Latino boys. Her goal is to roll out additional advisory support in the next school year. What started as a “hack” to give agency to a single student is beginning to affect the school-wide culture by incorporating student voice into decision making.

Creating a Movement

The School Retool fellowship launched in 2015 with a pilot for 16 principals from seven San Francisco Bay Area school districts, reaching more than 12,000 students. School Retool has since hosted cohorts for school leaders in Washington D.C., Detroit, Virginia, Idaho, and Colorado. By the end of 2016, 164 school leaders of over 114,000 students had participated in the fellowship program.

In addition to the in-depth work with school leaders, School Retool is creating a national dialogue around change in schools. Its first national effort drew more than 1,500 principals in the Shadow A Student Challenge, who spent a day walking in students’ shoes to build empathy and gain insight into their students’ school lives.

Learn more about how more school leaders are enacting change: bringing a sense of true belonging to a school’s culture; engaging students as active learners; hacking towards literacy; retooling for equity; and more.

Marthaa Torres: Adopting a Hacking Mindset on Vimeo.