Discussion focuses on planning system-wide personalized learning strategy

By Carrie Stewart & Scott Milam

It was an inspirational three days’ work for Afton at the end of June, as we joined six innovating districts at the Chicago convening of the Next Generation Systems Initiative (NGSI).

As many of our readers will know, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, NGSI has selected six mid-sized and large districts that are committed to developing a system-wide personalized learning strategy, by launching new schools or redesigning existing ones. They are the Dallas Independent School District, the Denver Public Schools, the Henry County Public Schools in Georgia, the Lake County Public Schools and the Pinellas County Public Schools in Florida, and the Riverside Unified School District, in Riverside, Calif.

Afton is providing finance-focused supports to these districts as they plan and scale personalized learning. At the meeting in Chicago, held from June 24 to June 26, we led the working session on budget and finance. Designated staff from each district’s team engaged in a spirited conversation about the role of the finance department in planning and implementing district-wide personalized learning.

One key focus of discussion was how personalized learning presents a significant opportunity for the academic and finance functions of a district to work strategically together. Our working group sought to define what roles an effective district finance department would play in the planning and implementation of system-level personalized learning. The group agreed that such a department should serve not only as a financial planning resource, but also as a strategic advisor and a policy advocate. The model we came up with is below:

Our working group also discussed barriers, challenges, and opportunities related to the financial implications of personalized learning. Some big themes emerged:

  • A myriad of policy and contractual factors affect districts’ ability to fund and implement personalized learning programs. Class size minimums, staffing requirements, procurement policies and processes, and funding restrictions at the state and local level all impact conversion or start-up of unique school models. Having flexible policies for pilot programs can mitigate this, as district boards see success in these programs and become convinced to change policy in the longer term should results warrant the change.
  • The financial sustainability of new school models is key: many districts expressed concern that funding streams required to scale their personalized learning programs were single or temporary sources.

This convening of districts in Chicago was only the first of many planned working sessions between Afton and the NGSI districts. Going forward, we will be providing resources and advice based on district-defined goals. In our next post, we will talk about the finance-focused goals that our group collectively suggests for a district that is in the planning phase of implementing personalized learning.

Carrie Stewart and Scott Milam are co-founders of Afton Partners, which helps school districts and charter management organizations to align resources to achieve stability and sustainability, so they better achieve their objective of improved student outcomes. Carrie is based in Chicago, Scott in Washington DC.