Parents concerned after Inspire Innovation Lab loses lease, founder vows to find a new home by January
Inspire Innovation lab has offered afterschool and summer programs in Moorhead for over seven years. More recently, founder Carrie Leopold launched a full-time day school that serves many students who struggled in public school.
MOORHEAD — Carrie Leopold describes the scene at Inspire Innovation Lab on a recent Thursday morning as "structured chaos."
Some of the 18 full-time students sat quietly at computers, studying independently. A group of older students were gathered with teacher Sara Gurath in a language lab nearby.
Leopold has offered afterschool and summer programs in Moorhead for over seven years. More recently, she added the Innovation Academy, a full-time day school which serves many students who struggled in public school.
Leopold describes herself as neurodivergent, and says her fellow teachers and many of their students are as well. The term "neurodivergent" is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and other learning disabilities, but at its core it describes people who experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways. There is no "right" way of thinking, learning and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.
Kimberly Larson's daughter was one of first students enrolled in the Innovation Academy. She says the school changed Miley's life.
"Miley needs to have a familiar environment where she is able to be herself in a safe place," she says. "When Carrie and Sara (Gurath) started the Innovation Academy, Miley was able to engage in school as a learner for the first time ever."
"In the small environment, project-based learning style the lab offers, Miley is able to learn without even knowing it," she continues. "She is not made for the desk-to-desk shuffle of public school, and the unique and innovative education the lab provides has changed her life."
Now that school is in danger of closing. After negotiations fell through, Leopold recently received notice her lease at 423 Main Ave. has been terminated and she must move out by the end of January.
That worries parents like Larson.
"The effects of losing the lab on not only Miley but the dozens of kids who depend on the lab's trauma-informed approaches to safety and security and STEAM programming would be tragic," she says. "This would extend beyond the children to their families, and to the employees of the lab as well."
Leopold says she's confident they'll find a new home. She started the school in 2014 with nothing more than a dream, teaching supplies she'd collected in her garage over the years, and excellent bargaining skills, and she can do it again.
'It should never go away'
Leopold remembers getting her first F in the fifth grade.
She says it set her on the path of being a poor student. It affected her self-esteem and self-worth, causing her to eventually drop out of school.
Now a PhD graduate, she sometimes wonders how she avoided becoming a dropout statistic.
As a young mother, she earned a degree in biology from Minnesota State University Moorhead and studied cellular molecular biology for a few years at North Dakota State University before switching her focus to education. She earned a master's degree in education from MSUM and later her doctorate from the University of North Dakota.
She worked as a STEM outreach coordinator for the North Dakota State College of Science in Fargo before launching Inspire Innovation Lab.
While she had great opportunities working for NDSCS, she says she grew tired of the political hierarchy. She says she would secure a grant, establish a program, the money would run out, and the program would go away.
"It was never sustainable," she says.
She wanted to make a bigger difference in education and worked on ideas for about a year before leaving NDSCS to launch Inspire Innovation Lab.
"If I could start it with no money, it should never go away," Leopold thought at the time.
That philosophy extends to tuition. The school operates through a mix of grants, private donations and student fees.
"My one thing was that I would never turn anyone away because they didn't have money," she says. "Everybody pays something, but there are a fair amount who don't pay much, and that's OK."
'The land of misfits'
Leopold means no disrespect when she refers to Inspire Innovation Lab as "the land of misfits."
The school is all about embracing people for who they are and where they are in their education, judgment-free.
Leopold understands firsthand not everyone learns the same way.
"If they have behaviors because they're neurodiverse, that affects how they then feel about themselves and they get embarrassed, and there are things they can't even control," she says. "We want a safe environment where they can be themselves. I like to call us the 'land of the misfits.' They can be who they are. Even if there's a big issue or behavior, we're still going to help them. We're still going to be there for them."
Coursework is individualized. Students do blocks of math and language in the morning. Afternoons are spent on projects heavily based on the philosophy of designed thinking .
"The big difference is the empathy piece. Every project we do is intentional about adding that in," Leopold says. "How might this affect somebody? Can you walk in their shoes?"
Students recently spent time learning how to launch and operate a taco truck. They priced out ingredients, planned tacos, designed a menu, laid out their food truck design and more.
The project was a way to introduce them to being an entrepreneur, Leopold says. Next they'll be asked to come up with their own business idea and participate in a Shark Tank-like event.
Leopold says she isn't concerned so much about the end project. She's interested in how they ask questions and find answers. Were they able to think critically and problem solve?
In addition to the day school, 42 students are enrolled in the Inspire Innovation Lab's afterschool program, with many more on a waiting list. The school offers robust summer programming as well.
How can you help?
Inspire Innovation Lab was one of 25 nonprofits selected by the FM Area Foundation to benefit from this year's Caring Catalog.
The online fundraiser meant to highlight local charities could not have come at a better time, Leopold says.
Leopold says she also hopes this story reaches someone with a lead on commercial property. She could use help packing and moving the school once a location is found as well.
Larson encourages people to do what they can for this "one-of-a-kind" school.
"From working as a teacher or attending as a learner, the lab's 'messy learning' STEAM programming is truly a one-of-a-kind place in the F-M community," says Larson. "There are no mistakes and only learning opportunities. The lab has provided every kid a safe place to play and learn and grow. Carrie had a vision for helping every child learn when she started the lab, and it has grown into more than that. The lab is a family."