Afton focuses on supporting and promoting the financial and operational sustainability of the RBL initiative, through a combination of direct technical assistance, cohort level evaluation, assessments and data analysis.
Raising Blended Learners (“RBL”) is a statewide initiative demonstrating the ability to use blended learning strategies to improve student achievement across diverse student demographics and geographic regions in Texas. Four school districts and one charter network received up to $500,000 in grant funding and comprehensive implementation supports after a competitive consideration process; these organizations, called demonstration sites, will serve as proof points for the effective implementation of blended learning. Fifteen additional districts/networks were selected as pilot sites and are receiving comprehensive implementation supports but no incremental funding; these sites will further promote the expansion of blended learning statewide and contribute toward learning.
Afton focused on supporting and promoting the financial (and operational) sustainability of the RBL initiative, through a combination of direct technical assistance and cohort level evaluation, assessments and data analysis. While we tailored our technical supports to suit individual sites’ needs, and while our areas of focus for the RBL initiative evolved over time, our work can be broken down into the following periods, with the key activities within each period as follows:
- Pre-grant award support and “Pulse Checks”
- Financial workshops
- “Pulse Check” exercise
- Grant material development and review
- Evaluation support
- Year one implementation support and sustainability planning
- Individualized scopes of work for financial technical assistance
- Site visits and rural cohort meeting(s)
- Financial model development
- Year two planning and sustainability evaluations
- Cash planning iteration and variance reporting
- Evaluation material development (data collection templates and sustainability rubric)
- Data collection and CFO interviews
- Sustainability rubric evaluation
- Year one report: conclusions and lessons learned
A thorough, detailed analysis of sources and uses of funds for the first year of the Raising Blended Learners grant program revealed:
- Excluding the technical support professional development (which were philanthropically funded and resulted in no direct expenditures at the site-level), sites plan to spend $209 per pupil on average, per year, over a five year time period to support their blended learning models.
- While incremental funding will be used at some sites, most networks are planning to fund this initiative by reallocating existing expenditures to support blended learning in the long-term.
- Sites are incurring one-time costs to support their blended learning programs, but they plan to primarily invest in key design elements with recurring costs.
- Half of planned expenditures are investments in personnel and professional development, rather than software, hardware or other IT expenses.
Afton developed a blog series to share experiences, findings, and thought evolution over the course of the RBL initiative:
- RBL Part 1 – Finance and Innovation: the role of finance in the early stages of academic innovation
- RBL Part 2 – Working Together: supporting grant applicant teams through the application process
- RBL Part 3 – Year 1 Cohort-Level Financial Analysis
Understanding financial implications associated with implementing an innovative academic model is crucial to program sustainability. At Afton, we have found that while districts and charter networks may budget at the school level, they do not always identify the key design elements of their innovative models within their budgets and internal financial projections. Understanding the costs associated with an innovative model’s key design elements and identifying the sources of funding for these investments can help protect the initiative from future budget cuts and increase the likelihood that original goals for program size and scale within the network are met.
Long term sustainability of Blended Learning in each district/network will likely hinge upon a series of strategies to mitigate financial and non-financial risks. Based on a thorough review of sustainability rubrics developed for this initiative, some sites are in better position to financially support RBL in the long term. In addition to the cohort-wide analysis, Afton developed a financial sustainability rubric to assess the current and projected financial health of each site. The rubrics include detailed information on: a) current financial health, b) capital planning, c) financial policies and procedures, d) the multi-year financial plan, and e) the pilot budget and variance analysis.
Each site is taking its own path to sustainability. Afton learned that best practice Districts thought of finance as an important element to sustain their innovative blended learning plans, though sites took varying pathways (and timelines) to reach this conclusion.
Timing of financial supports is important. Many sites were not yet “ready” for full financial supports until after year one implementation.
Afton recommends implementing an ongoing (though not onerous) engagement and data collection strategy to maintain the focus on long term sustainability. Collecting a uniform, quantitative financial projection data set for each site not only prompted sites to take a methodical approach to planning, but this also enables more accurate financial analyses such as actual vs. projected expenditures, and plan changes over time. This RBL cohort includes a diverse set of organizations scaling a variety of different academic models. To help accurately capture sources and uses of funds across these sites, Afton developed a common data structure and data collection process, which was then used to assess, analyze, and compare different approaches to implementing blended learning programs at both the school and district/network level.