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LEAP Innovations

Breakthrough Schools Analysis

Afton analyzes long-term sustainability of six innovative school models through LEAP Innovations, in a recently published report.

LEAP Innovations and Afton Partners released a report in February 2018 titled, Sustaining Innovation & Preparing for Scale: Financial Sustainability and Analysis of Personalized Learning School Models. The report provides analysis and key learnings on how six breakthrough school models in Chicago examined costs after the initial startup expenses to sustain and scale their efforts. The report was featured in Education Week and The 74.

Analysis of these Chicago schools shows personalized learning can be a financially sustainable school model that prioritizes teachers. This study also confirms that personalized learning isn’t about spending big on technology. Rather, it’s about rethinking how we approach teaching and learning, and develop models that encourage collaboration between all the adults and students in the building.

Afton has supported LEAP through its first two cohorts of Breakthrough Schools, a competitive grant program for Chicago schools to pilot innovative personalized learning models aligned with LEAP’s personalized learning framework, by evaluating the financial sustainability of proposed school models. Through this report, Afton analyzed the long-term sustainability of six of these schools’ models in-depth, specifically addressing questions regarding resource allocation, start-up costs, financial sustainability challenges, and opportunities for cost effectiveness and scalability.

For the schools in this study, we’ve found that whole-school personalized learning models:

  • Require modest investment to start – start-up costs ranged from $338K to $780K across the six schools, and $233 to $1,135 on a per pupil basis.
  • Prove sustainable without ongoing grant funding on typical district budgets.
  • Can even sustain severe budget cuts in a way that is comparable to or exceeds traditional Chicago Public Schools while personalizing the learning experience for students.

Regarding resource allocation, we found:

  • Teachers remain the most critical resource in personalized learning models. We saw no decreases in investment in teachers and support staff. Rather, many schools have also innovated their staffing structures.
  • Professional development is an important up-front investment, but it is manageable long term. PD accounted for 21% of schools’ start-up costs, but for recurring projected expenditures, principals are not planning to increase overall PD spending. Instead, they often dedicate existing PD and planning time to plan for and implement personalized learning.
  • Personalized learning is not just about technology. At the outset, procuring and leveraging hardware and adaptive software tools accounted for 41% of schools’ start-up costs; however, total recurring IT spending did not increase substantially and accounts for about two percent of total budget by year five.
  • New teacher leadership roles are important but require financial flexibility to fund. To provide teachers with increased compensation for their increased responsibilities–in some examples–, principals either used budget flexibilities to compensate teachers with stipends out of one-time funding, or they sought waivers to formally increase salaries.  Long-term, scalable solutions remain an open question, but it’s clear that principal flexibility matters.

Our Insights

The key to school-level sustainability of Personalized Learning is the school leader’s ability to discern what elements have made the school model successful, and then to ensure budgetary decisions align to protecting and promoting those elements.  Because every PL school model is different, it is fundamental that principals are able to discern for themselves or have the support to help them identify what makes their model work, understand the budgetary and financial policy levers at their disposal, and then align financial investments – both one-time and recurring – accordingly.

Districts and other leaders can create environments supportive of innovation, and Afton has provided recommendations for consideration:

Recommendations to Improve Cost-Effectiveness of Personalized Learning Models

  • Ensure principals understand the flexibilities – financial and otherwise – at their disposal, and use them to align resources to strategic academic plans
  • Review compensation policies and consider a pilot of a compensation structure supportive of teacher leadership models
  • Ensure cost- and time-effective procurement. Procurement restrictions such as non-standard purchases were very challenging for the schools studied
  • Support efficient evaluation, selection, and payment of effective software programs, and consider pooling resources for common unmet needs
  • Be strategic in providing grant funds or additional funding, ensuring grant programs require thorough financial planning

Recommendations for Scaling Personalized Learning

  • Facilitate rather than mandate – we cannot mandate innovation, but can facilitate learning and cultural change. In particular, focus on building a pipeline of innovative school leaders
  • Continue supporting the development pilot schools, recognizing they are still building and continue to need support; at the same time, continually evaluate outcomes
  • Provide strategic, coordinated financial and in-kind supports for future schools
  • Coordinate efforts to continue identifying challenges to innovation. Develop coordinated plans to address significant identified financial, operational, and policy challenges

Stats & Impact


Schools studied


Students in studied schools

$3.1 million

Philanthropic and in-kind dollars to launch these school models