For the second consecutive year, Afton’s Scott Milam and Katie Morrison-Reed hosted an expert panel on sustaining innovative public-school models.  This panel discussion built upon the discussion from a year prior at iNACOL, as four of the six panelists had previously shared their experiences and thoughts on sustainability on the prior year’s panel. As personalized learning becomes more ubiquitous, we see more and more schools seeking to shift mindsets from seeding innovation to learning how to sustain it. Common threads from our discussion included the importance of focusing on culture and authentic engagement, honoring the seemingly endless hard work of teachers and school leaders, engaging “naysayers” constructively, and identifying opportunities to build structure without losing innovative mindsets. Some specific invaluable insights from our panelists are shared here.

So often in education, we spend time, money, and energy planning, developing, and implementing new initiatives, pouring our hearts and souls into a new effort – only to see it dissipate in a couple of years as funding goes away, as barriers are encountered, or as something else becomes more important. How can you avoid seeing this happen to your blended and personalized learning initiatives? How can you make your innovation “stick” and create an environment conducive of scale? In October, Afton’s Scott Milam and Katie Morrison-Reed had the opportunity to lead a panel discussion at the iNACOL conference, focused on sustainability of personalized learning and other school redesign initiatives. Panelists included practitioners and thought leaders from across the country:

  • Sujata Bhatt – Sr. Fellow, Transcend
  • Amy Dodson – LRC/Blended Learning Director, Cisco ISD
  • Jennifer Ferrari – VP & Chief Schools Officer, Distinctive Schools
  • Amy Huang – Sr. Director of Programs, LEAP Innovations
  • Nikolaus Namba – Director of 21st Century Learning, Lindsay Unified School District
  • Beth Rabbitt – CEO, The Learning Accelerator


Following are excerpts from the Sustaining Innovation panel discussion


Regarding Vision and Strategy

  • I don’t know who the business guru is who said culture eats strategy for breakfast…so make the culture the strategy — Sujata Bhatt
  • If you can’t articulate and really understand why you’re doing this work, it’s too hard to keep it up. If you don’t really understand why, what the vision is, what you want your students to be at the end of this process, what you want them to be able to do, and how successful you want them to be, then the work is too hard for your teachers. — Amy Dodson


Regarding Change Management

  • If you don’t have a deep understanding of every position inside the transformation process before you start working in it, the reality is you probably won’t be able to sustain it. Leaders must understand and be able to empathize with people attempting to implement the model around the fact that what you are asking them to do requires deep passion, commitment, and support. — Nik Namba
  • Get used to understanding that the work is never done. There’s never a finish line in innovation, and you just have to remember that we’re living in a perpetual state of beta, which is uncomfortable but super fun. — Jennifer Ferrari
  • The innovation process as we see it is both a combination of what we tend to think of as “innovation or invention” and “change management” and this constant interplay between the two. — Beth Rabbitt
  • This work is incredibly hard work and it takes kind of constant capacity and access to resources for doing it…about two to three years in and additional funding goes away or the initial excitement and shininess starts to wear off and everybody’s still carrying really heavy packs and trying to climb uphill and it’s that time when the additional resources are actually needed — Beth Rabbitt


Regarding Communications

  • You have to remember you’re fighting for what [communities] are wanting for their children, rather than fighting for what you want for the children — Nik Namba
  • It’s the clarity of the vision, but it’s also the communication of the vision…because it’s not just, “we know our why,” it’s, “we’ve communicated and we’ve actually engaged every member of our community to invest in it.” And that’s common across every school system we see that has succeeded in sustaining but also in weathering turnover — Beth Rabbitt


Regarding Engaging the Masses

  • The ability to move the will rather than force it, it certainly leads us to a better point of sustainability with our teachers. — Amy Dodson
  • Who are your naysayers? Can we bring them into the design team from day 0 so they’re part of the vision creation?” And then we spend like 30%-50% of our professional learning sessions just on building that shared vision, so they feel like it’s theirs and they can voice all of their opposition from the get-go, and then we take it very much like, what is a problem-tunity that we’re trying to solve? And then get them in from day 0. — Amy Huang
  • Keep the union close and to keep the union as a partner in the work…. So, it’s about a central office that’s willing to make that outreach and bring the union in as a partner rather than notify them that…If we talk the language of implementation, if we talk the language of rollout, that’s not people collaborating to design with you; that’s top down. — Sujata Bhatt
  • We spend a considerable amount of time building relationships across the district at all levels, so superintendent, chief data officer, chief teaching and learning officer, all the network chiefs, all the principals, and teachers… I think our work is very bottom-up as well as top-down, so making sure that teachers are at the design table. I would say some of our most sustainable school models, the principals think about “how can i provide a professional nod [to teachers], to respect that your voice and time matters” — Amy Huang
  • “Builders not renters”— So, if you’re renting, you’re never going to take care of it the way you would your own, so the more builders you can create and the more builders you can invite to the table, the better off the product’s going to be and the longer it will last — Jennifer Ferrari


Regarding Systems and Structures

  • Try to design systems in capacity to design yourself out of a job as soon as you start – Sujata Bhatt
  • Once you have crystal-clear vision and a very clear target…you start to build your “walled garden” of systems and structure and support, and you let people go in that space. — Jennifer Ferrari
  • It’s great to…invest everyone in the change, engage folks in problem-solving. At the same time, I do think districts need to take greater ownership for building or finding resources that are scalable, that people can implement…[such as] vetting curriculum. It’s incredibly hard for teachers to find, curate, compose curricular units in innovative settings. Providing meaningful support for data collection and analysis, so teachers aren’t sweating about spreadsheets, but are looking at data that they can react to. Stuff like that, that…provide them with the tools that allow them to spend their time on the stuff that matters — Beth Rabbitt
  • We had to start finding a way to codify some of the work…Just like Starbucks, you can go to Shanghai or Chicago and it feels really different inside. It looks different, it has different smells, it has different food on the line, different décor, different music, but you can still get your latte in the cup. So, we’re in Michigan in Detroit and we’re in the Westside of Chicago and they couldn’t be more different, so to try to design everything the same would be really disrespectful to the context, and so we say, “You know you’re in a Distinctive School, but we honor the branch as well,” so it’s strong brand and branch. — Jennifer Ferrari


Regarding Personnel Transitions/Turnover

  • Never let a program you’re doing in any facet be personality-driven. It’s very easy to be personality-driven when you’ve got someone who’s excited and enthusiastic about it, but that’s not sustainable. Sustainability comes with policy and purpose…Some pieces were there in policy, and had we done it from the very beginning across the board I would sleep more at night. — Amy Dodson
  • If your organization can’t agree on what personalized learning is, or what educators are supposed to do, you won’t be able to sustain any quality of implementing a transformative model. Once you have clarity, then you start building out your SWOT analysis to identify your next strategic steps. Throughout the process, you must ensure there is alignment in the essential components and that it coincides with what the community asked for in the first place. — Nik Namba


We look forward to watching the progress this amazing group of leaders helps schools make over the next year and to continue the conversation at iNACOL 2019.