Innovation & Finance: Lessons from Afton’s Work with NGLC Grant Program

Author: Scott Milam

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This post originally appeared on Afton Partners' blog on April 20, 2017.

Three key takeaways from this blog:

  • Identifying impactful, scalable elements of innovative school models is as important as identifying viable whole school models.
  • If schools show academic success, sustainability follows regardless of the funding environment.
  • The quality, depth and breadth of the leadership team is paramount to ensuring sustainability.

“It’s not always about scaling full school models, but taking the most effective elements and sharing those with other schools who can find the innovation useful.” – Sarah Luchs, Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC)

The definition of scale has evolved over time to focus less on scaling the exact school model that was originally implemented, but to identify the crucial elements of those successful models – professional development, content, LMS, etc. – and make those available to the marketplace as efficiently and economically as possible.

Scalability can be expensive with startup costs and change management within school district and charter network structures, which could delay implementation. One approach Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) grantees have used to address this is by starting with one school and then slowly growing to include more schools each year before implementing across an entire district or network. It’s not perfect, but that is where NGLC has seen promising outcomes.

  • Summit Public Schools (2012 NGLC grantee) developed Basecamp to save time and money. This innovation started at one school and now over 100 schools use Summit Learning platform. There are now several regional Summit “hubs”, including Pasadena ISD in Texas, allowing for the Summit model to scale and meet the unique needs of the students and families in each region of the country.
  • Brooklyn Lab (2013 NGLC grantee) developed an integrated SIS and LMS called Cortex, which enables other operators, including traditional district and charter schools, to implement breakthrough school designs that meet the needs of their students, but also leverage lessons learned by the Brooklyn Lab team.

“Investing in new innovations can transform education because it supports solving problems all schools face, but you must identify how to measure the innovations and get buy-in from all levels of leadership for successful change to have a lasting effect.” – Dalia Hochman, NGLC

Sustainability goes beyond just finance and includes operations, leadership, academics, the policy environment, and politics. Financial health continues to be critically important, though much is driven by the academic success of each school, its network and/or district.  If the school shows success, families (and enrollment) follows, which allows for long-term sustainability, regardless of the funding environment.

Additionally, the quality of the leader and leadership team is crucial for the new model to be sustainable. NGLC learned from its grantees that people matter just as much as the model and individual leader. That is why focused efforts have been made to invest in the full team and provide supports through partnerships to provide guidance on the planning and implementation processes. This helps teams navigate change management within districts and charter organizations and ensures buy-in from all levels so if a leader leaves, the new model does not leave with them.

  • In Chicago, regional partner LEAP Innovations analyzed the depth and breath of mindset change for leaders when interviewing potential grantees’ proposals. They prioritized buy-in from all levels, not only leadership, to determine if the new practice can weather a change from the founding leadership team. People matter just as much as the innovative practice for it to be a success.
  • NGLC released a report titled, “Measures that Matter Most” to explore how educators in NGLC schools are measuring success in educational innovations, gaining their perspective on what new measures and approaches are needed.
  • Major funders have started to invest in some of the disaggregated aspects of scale such as those highlighted here, in addition to investing in whole school models to replicate.

Through Afton’s work with innovative school models, our definition of sustainability and scalability has evolved and aligns closely to the outcomes of our work with NGLC.  Look for additional blogs in the near future on how our overall view of financial sustainability and scale has changed through our work with innovative school models throughout the country.


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Scott Milam is co-founder and managing director of Afton Partners. Follow him on Twitter @milam_scott.

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