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    Working Together: Supporting Grant Applicant Teams through the Application Process

    By Scott Milam, Afton Partners

    After reading this blog, the reader will:

    1. Understand the benefit of providing in-person financial workshops to grant applicants
    2. Understand how finance involvement in these workshops can benefit grant teams
    3. Understand the approach for Raising Blended Learners (RBL) finance sessions
    4. Be able to apply RBL finance session activities to their own teams
      Engaging Finance early in the development of new school models allows school design teams to:

    Raising Blended Learners

    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 Partners is supporting this initiative as financial and sustainability planning experts within the comprehensive implementation supports available to districts/networks.

    This blog is part of a series on Afton’s experiences, findings, and thought evolution over the course of the RBL initiative.

    Why host a finance workshop early in the school design process?
    In 2016, Afton facilitated over 30 workshops with school teams that were in the process of building business plans to support blended learning at their district or network. These workshops were intended to:

    • Build teamwork and relationships between academic and financial leadership
    • Reinforce the importance of considering financial sustainability early in the planning process
    • Identify potential policy, process or other finance-related roadblocks, and identify potential solutions with the right people in the room.

    The workshops. School teams of five to ten members, including teachers, principals, administration and finance staff and leadership participated in intensive two-day sessions led by Raise Your Hand Texas (RYHT) and CA Group. As part of these sessions, Afton facilitated a 50-minute station rotation on financial sustainability. Having cross-functional team members attend the finance session established the right expectation that finance is not something that is done in isolation, and it promoted the right mindset that academic planning and financial planning should be supportive of each other – bridging what is typically a pervasive gap. Due to the diverse array of participants, Afton purposefully avoided focusing on spreadsheets and financial data, and rather focused on financial conditions for success. To achieve this, the workshop included:

    • An overview of the mission and purpose of the RYHT grant, and how finance supports these goals
    • A “walking activity” which we called the financial “pulse check” to allow teams to collectively and individually react to certain statements about financial readiness, including financial planning and policies
    • A group discussion about the activity and how it impacted their planned school design or pilot plan, and risks and opportunities it highlighted for the team to consider and address

    The outcomes. The finance representative from each team typically started as the lead in these workshops, though by the end all team members participated in the discussion. The purpose of this exercise was to build a knowledge base upon which to construct a financial plan. By using a common set of data from the exercise, teams identified implementation challenges or clarifications necessary as they built their long-term implementation plans.
    Another benefit of the team composition was that finance staff could attend other workshops and sessions that were focused on the academic models that were being developed by the school teams. Afton’s session was only a small part of this immersive experience for financial leadership.

    Lessons learned. Fifty minutes isn’t enough time to move the needle, but it can be a start. The real opportunity is for academic and finance teams to continually work together on the new school model. Best practice districts continue to work together even after the launch of the new school model.

    Innovative education models require innovative financial thinking, but sometimes there are long-held assumptions about finance or how financial planning ought to be done that are quite difficult to change in fifty-minute sessions. We have found that there are some cases where cross-functional teams are not clearly aligned with the finance representative on approach and the role of finance. Having a finance group discussion ahead of these cross-functional sessions may have been beneficial.

    Because finance and academic representatives from each team came together, implementation issues were identified during the sessions that impacted school design. Finance discussions tend to focus on specific funding sources and/or uses of resources that surfaced several clarifications, including the type of devices used and procurement processes (and potential bottlenecks). For example, one seemingly coordinated district realized at the workshop table that central office was planning for two grade levels of implementation, and the principal thought it was three grade levels. Another district’s central office participants felt school leaders had the autonomy they needed to implement the plan, but the school leaders at the table disagreed.

    Maintaining the momentum. Team work doesn’t end after the launch of an innovative school model. Academic and finance representatives must continue to work as a team as they put their new school design into practice and refine school and district plans to fund blended learning initiatives with and without grant funding.

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