Seeking to fill what they call an “inspiration gap” in American education, a team of Yale graduates and their friends will launch a new initiative called the Future Project in four schools nationwide this fall.

The project will pair adult “coaches” with high school students to develop projects based on mutual passions to impact their schools and communities. Though the Future Project is starting on a small scale, its founders have lofty ambitions: They cite Teach for America and the Peace Corps as models of how to engage a college-age generation to “give back” to the educational system, and hope to expand nationally.

“We don’t think of this as a program,” co-founder and President Andrew Mangino ’09 said in an email. “We think of it as a generational call to action and movement to bring together young Americans with students in their cities and inspire them, together in teams and partnerships, to dare mighty things.”

The brainchild of Mangino and CEO Kanya Balakrishna ’09, the Future Project will launch in New Haven, New York and Washington, D.C. in early October. More than 300 students at four schools will participate, Balakrishna said. (Mangino is a former editor in chief of the News, and Balakrishna is a former managing editor of the News.)

Students at participating schools must apply to join the Future Project, and upon acceptance they are considered Future Fellows for the rest of their high school years. The college students and young professionals who work with them are called Future Coaches, rather than mentors, as the projects are primarily student-driven, said John-Michael Parker ’10, the director of the Future Project’s New York branch.

Each Future Fellow is tasked with creating a project that meets three criteria, Balakrishna said: The project must be based on something the student is passionate about, must have an impact on his or her school or community and must involve engagement with people outside the project. So far, around 400 students and almost 500 coaches have applied to the Future Project this year.

Mangino said that as a sophomore reporter for the News, he noticed that the majority of high school students in New Haven seemed to be disengaged. He began to think that a disparity in inspiration — an “inspiration gap” between students that underperformed and those at the top of their class — was the root cause of the achievement gap.

Mangino said he had an “a-ha” moment while volunteering at a Washington, D.C. high school in fall 2009. He was working with a student to write a college application essay when he asked the student what he thought was a simple question.

“I asked him, ‘What do you care about?’” Mangino said. “And he said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve never been asked that question.’”

In fall 2010, Mangino and Balakrishna decided to go forward with the Future Project. They soon began reaching out to friends and former teachers and classmates and assembled a team of over 50 people — most of them volunteers — to conduct research and reach out to prospective partner schools. the Future Project has already raised about half of their first year budget of $550,000, Balakrishna said.

Training for Future Coaches will start Sept. 30 at the Legacy School for Integrated Studies and the Richard R. Green School of Teaching in New York, and Oct. 1 at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. Coaches at New Haven Academy will begin training Oct. 8, with students and coaches being matched at all the schools shortly after the training sessions.

But even before the project’s official launch, administrators and Future Project leaders say the initiative is gaining momentum.

“I can tell the students are inspired because they talk about it, they are actively recruiting other students, and they want to be a part of this,” said Joan Mosely, principal of the Legacy School in lower Manhattan. “They want to name the hallways after future dreams and goals.”

A group of “student ambassadors” at each school have been raising awareness about the program and encouraging their peers to apply, said Ian Temple, chief operating officer for the Future Project. Fifteen of these ambassadors participated in an “Institute for Inspiration” one weekend in August in New York, during which they performed leadership exercises and talked about their goals, Temple said.

Last week was “Future Week” at New Haven Academy — a week devoted to spreading the word about the Future Project through what New Haven director Laura Winnick called “random acts of inspiration.” Meeting in the school’s library last Monday afternoon, about 20 students made advertisements for the program using post-it notes, colored popsicle sticks and construction paper.

Shafeeq Torres and Tatyana Newson, two students at the New Haven Academy meeting, said they were considering a Future Project to combine recycling and the arts.

“We’ve thought about going to the Green and drumming [with recycled items],” Torres said, adding that many New Haven restaurants throw away materials rather than recycling them. “It would let people know that recycling isn’t just garbage; it’s making music.”

New Haven Academy principal Gregory Baldwin said the Future Project aligns with his school’s emphasis on service and active citizenship. All seniors at New Haven Academy must complete a social action project to graduate, he said, adding that the Future Project will encourage students to effect change in their communities even sooner.

“We’ve seen mentoring programs, we’ve seen other things that try to inspire kids to social action, but we haven’t seen a combination like this,” said Meredith Gavrin, program director at New Haven Academy.

Tony Wagner, an innovation education fellow at Harvard University who served as an adviser to the Future Project’s team, said the group’s focus on inspiration is unique among education reform efforts.

“The elephant in the room in school reform is that no one talks about motivating students,” Wagner said. “In my view, ignoring the challenge of how we motivate today’s students is a recipe for failure.”

But Wagner said he worries a year-long partnership between students and their Future Coaches might not be long enough.

Diane Ravitch, a prominent education scholar and research professor of education at New York University, said she could not comment on the specifics of the Future Project. Still, she said any effort to support students and public schools is worthwhile, as long as the participants recognize that the root cause of student underachievement is poverty.

“So, yes, do bring your enthusiasm and inspiration, but don’t forget that what matters most [poverty] is not addressed,” she said in an email.

The Future Project hopes to expand to Hillhouse High School in New Haven next academic year.