Patrick Cook-Deegan once wanted to build a school, one focused on helping high school students find purpose through attending to their mental health and well-being. It would be based in Palo Alto, Calif., which was rattled by clusters of suicides among the city’s teenagers.
The school board turned down the idea. But Cook-Deegan found other ways to bring his vision to life. In 2015, he received a fellowship at Stanford University’s famed design school and spent the next two years working to build a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum tailored for high school students. A year later, he and a team piloted the program to 2,500 students. The following year, that effort became formally incorporated as a startup, Project Wayfinder.
Cook-Deegan says the program is currently used by more than 20,000 students across the country. Those numbers may seem modest, but the traction has been enough to attract investors who are providing support to see it grow. Today, Project Wayfinder announced it has raised $1.5 million in a seed round from Reach Capital, Evolve Ventures and Sorenson Impact Ventures.
A former teacher who has taught mindfulness in schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, Cook-Deegan says “helping students develop a sense of meaning and purpose has been my core driving function as an educator.”
Once considered niche, a nice-to-have but taking a backseat to academic priorities, social-emotional learning has become a priority for many school leaders, at a time when many students—especially teenagers—are struggling with loneliness, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues related to pandemic-forced closures and remote instruction.
Many digital SEL programs have emerged in recent years—some, like EmpowerU and Move This World, are also backed by private investors. But not many programs focus specifically on high school. The leading SEL nonprofit, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), has identified dozens of programs for elementary grade levels, but only a handful for high school students.
A recent report on the K-12 SEL market landscape from Tyton Partners, a strategy consulting firm and investment bank, found SEL services adopted at lower rates among middle and high schools than for grades K-5, based on a survey of over 2,900 administrators and teachers.
Adolescence is a time when many students are trying to figure out their place in the world, and questioning what matters and why. The value of academics isn’t always clear, says Katie Barr, a principal at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“The disconnect we often hear from students is that, ‘School isn’t relating to me anymore,’” says Barr, who introduced the Wayfinder program to a freshman class in 2018 before rolling it out to all freshmen and sophomores. “We’re so focused on content and checking the boxes of ‘Did you get your math and English?’ that we forget that what makes school work are the relationships between adults and learners. We’ve moved so far away from that at times.”
Core to Project Wayfinder’s SEL programs for high schoolers is the concept of “purpose learning,” the idea that understanding one’s identity, their place in the world, their goals and their meaning all matter. The curriculum is based on the research of Bill Damon, a Stanford education professor who Cook-Deegan studied with, which asserts that students are stressed less by everything they have to do than from a lack of understanding about why they’re doing it.
Wayfinder aims to help high schoolers break down that big “why” question into smaller ones through two programs: “Purpose” for grades 9 to 12, and “Belonging” for grades 7 to 10. The former encourages students to reflect on their personal stories, their relationship with the world and contributions to the community. The latter helps them explore relationships and build empathy and compassion.
Each program comes with lesson plans, training guides, exercises and reflection questions for students, which are available in hard copies and through an app accessible via the web and mobile devices.
Through these lessons, Barr says her teachers have been able to encourage students to openly express their anxieties in a healthy way and develop habits like positive self-talk to address them. It’s also allowed teachers to be open about their own vulnerabilities, she adds, which in turn humanizes their relationships with students who otherwise see them as authority figures.
Building technology was originally not a big part of Wayfinder’s plan. But the pandemic changed all of that. The company reshuffled staff roles (and laid some people off) to focus on building digital versions of its curriculum—a difficult journey Cook-Deegan recounted on EdSurge. “We had to build an app to stay in business,” he says.
The company charges schools an annual fee that varies based on the number of students served, and offers extra professional development and implementation support for an additional charge. So far, there are about 150 schools paying for the curriculum, according to Cook-Deegan.
The seed funding will expand the company’s sales efforts and support research on the impact of the program, says Cook-Deegan. That will entail growing its headcount from 15 staff to 20 by the end of the year. It will also help accelerate product development, though there are no plans to expand its programs to serve grades K-5, he notes.
Cook-Deegan is realistic about how much any digital-enabled SEL program can accomplish, comparing the approach to preventative health. “It doesn’t mean students won’t have any anxiety, stress and depression,” he says. “But hopefully they’ll have a stronger core and can deal with them in a healthy way.”