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About ISP

Every great idea starts with a spark. Someone identifies a need and looks for a way to meet it. Our story begins the same way, as our founder saw two opportunities for growth in our community. Teachers needed flexibility to try new ideas in a micro environment and local communities needed an avenue for connecting with donors to help fund these new ideas. The result was the inception of the Innovative Schools Project.


We began in 2015 when Steve Uban met with Paul Drange of Sourcewell and presented the need for students and teachers to be able to learn from innovative educational opportunities. Communities needed a simpler process for teacher grants that was controlled locally and engaged both the teachers and the community.

Steve envisioned a collaborative atmosphere between schools and communities where school district’s education foundations raise money through community partnerships, which would be matched by ISP’s grant process to enable educators to try new ways of reaching their students and meeting their diverse needs.Since this money was not taxpayer money, it could be used to try new approaches that have a higher risk of failure.Steve relayed the power of matching raised funds through the story of Benjamin Franklin and his efforts to build the first public hospital for the average citizen to receive healthcare. He was able to raise the needed $3,000 because the community knew that every dollar they donated would equal two toward the hospital because of matching funds committed by Pennsylvania Assembly.

Steve envisioned a collaborative atmosphere between schools and community....

In 2016, with funding from Sourcewell, Steve partnered with Kristi Ackley of the Initiative Foundation and Jessica Gangl of the Brainerd Public Schools Foundation to create a process for awarding matching funds to local community partners that wanted to foster an innovative culture in their schools. Since then, local ISP Committees have been awarding grants to educators to increase educational opportunities in central Minnesota. The ISP Board is committed to supporting Region 5 school districts and their education foundations as they try new ways of teaching and engaging students to spark a love of learning and problem solving. There is value in all experiences, including failure, when we learn from it.


A couple of examples of grant projects ISP funding include:

  • Crosby-Ironton Elementary adopted a coding computer curriculum where students learned how to program robots.

  • Bertha-Hewitt School District bought Bearded Dragons and equipment and learned how to care for and breed them. The students gained entrepreneurial skills by selling the off-spring and reinvesting in the materials necessary to care for the Bearded Dragons, making it a sustainable project for future classes.


Moving forward, ISP is working towards creating a network of educators who incorporate innovation into their classrooms and collaborate with each other as well as the educators in their district, to incubate creative ideas.

Educators can learn from each other, benefitting their students, and ISP wants to provide opportunities to make this happen.


The ISP Board recognizes there are many problems locally, regionally and worldwide, and it is going to take kids equipped with problem-solving skills, creative thinking, and the ability to work with others to solve them.

MN Region 5

Our goal is to increase educational opportunities in Region 5 of Central Minnesota. There are five counties in Region 5: Cass County, Crow Wing County, Morrison County, Todd County, and Wadena County. Within these counties, we service public school districts.


Innovative Schools Project Board of Directors



The problems we face now are so much tougher than the ones we solved when I was in the corporate world.  These new problems take an entire new set of skills both technical and people.  The only way to effectively create these kinds of skills in the next generation is to bring innovation into our public school.  To make collaboration and innovation a part of public-school DNA.

So, a small group of talented and motivated people decided to create ISP to show the world that the best place to make change and try new things is in small rural school districts where the momentum of the status quo is not too great to overcome.  And if we succeed, we can save the world.

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I’m a father to two incredible sons, a husband to an amazing wife, a son to two loving parents, a brother to three supportive siblings, and a champion for kids and educational reform.  It is an honor and pleasure to serve our regional schools, families, teachers and students through my work as a Sourcewell Education Consultant and Innovative Schools Board Member.  After seeing the impact of a  classroom grant personally, I was and am a believer of what happens when educators are given the opportunity, challenge, and support to create innovation big and small as ISP makes our region a hub and hotspot of what’s possible in education.



As the Special Initiatives Director at the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation (BLAEDC), I understand innovation is an economic imperative to the vitality of our area.  This calls for more individuals to be innovating more often.  I am thrilled to see ISP planting these seeds in our area schools and supporting our educators to create an innovative culture. 


I also bring over 16 years’ experience as a former licensed school counselor where my personal and professional mission has been empowering students, as well as other educators, community members and parents to develop their potential.  As an active ISP board member, I look forward to visiting classrooms, witnessing firsthand those “aha” moments, and experiencing the positive impact the Innovative Schools Project makes not only in our schools, but the ripple effect in our communities.


I grew up in the Brainerd Lakes Area and my husband and I love raising our three children here—from the community, to award-winning schools, to the incredible recreational opportunities our area has to offer.

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I have an M.S. in Higher Education Administration from SCSU and am a proud graduate of Central Lakes College. I have served as the Director of Student Life at Central Lakes College for over 10 years. During his time at CLC, I have worked to address opportunity gaps by expanding leadership opportunities for BIPOC students; tackle food insecurity by enhancing the on-campus food pantry; and, improve student athletes’ academic experience by developing a customized orientation. Civic engagement is one of my core values, and I serve as an elected township supervisor and as the site coordinator for a monthly food distribution through Ruby’s Pantry, among other regular volunteer activities. I am the proud father of a 9-month-old named Henry and two Bernese Mountain Dogs, Rascal and Ralph. My wife Katie and I currently live in Staples, MN with our growing family.



Steve Barrows is the current Crow Wing County Commissioner of District 3, currently serving his second term. He was born in Albert Lea, MN and raised in Brainerd, MN. He has a wife, four sons, stepson, stepdaughter, eight grandchildren and one great grandson.

Working for the MN Department of Human Services for 28 years in the mental health field has given him a unique perspective of the issues facing the mental health problem and addictive behaviors. He currently serves on several committees working towards solutions facing persons with mental health, addictive behavior, homelessness, inequalities, etc.

He looks forward to challenging individuals to be creative, innovative and foreword thinking as they become the leaders of tomorrow.

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I am very proud to be partnering with Innovative Schools Project to enhance educational opportunities for students in Central Minnesota.  As a teacher since 1999, I feel a deep sense of responsibility to do all I can to support student learning and engagement in our community.  As a mom of two boys, I understand the importance of meeting the needs of the “whole child.”

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