Leading Regional Change by Planting Seeds of Innovation

Voices from the Field   05 May 2016
By Mark Hennes


We knew that changing nearly every aspect of an existing environment had to be a bottomup approach…”

Mark Hennes
Special Projects Supervisor, Capital Area Intermediate Unit

“WHY DON’T WE DO THIS OURSELVES?” The question hung in the air as each of us looked up from our reading. It was May 2014, and we were gathered in a conference room poring over the proposal requirements for the Next Generation Learning Challenge’s (NGLC) Regional Funds for Breakthrough Schools competition. This was a national competition to fund up to seven regional entities focused on supporting educational innovation.

We met a lot of the requirements: Public school, K-12 focus—check; willing to incubate new school models—check; able to conduct planning and launch grant competitions—check.

But, there were some requirements that didn’t fit us. We are a regional Educational Service Agency (ESA) in southcentral Pennsylvania. Our focus is on supporting our local schools, but most of the previous regional fund winners were large, metropolitan school districts. As an ESA, we could point our local schools towards educational transformation, but we have no authority to force funding or policy changes to support innovation. Further, we had some of our own funds available, but we had nowhere near the $1.2 million in matching funds required for the competition.

So, why don’t we do this ourselves? We knew that the educational climate of our local area was ripe for such an initiative. Through our training, technology, and consultation missions, we knew that classroom practices were already becoming more technology-based. We also knew that grant competitions were voluntary—so rather than using a “stick” approach, we could instead offer a “carrot” to encourage voluntary transformation. Lastly, we knew that we had to offer grants that were large enough to encourage teachers and administrators to shoulder the burden and the risk. We had some of our own funds available, but we knew we didn’t have enough. However, we knew we could solicit our various vendor partners to cobble together the funds to support a round of grant making.


A successful, building-wide implementation would create its own momentum for change across the district.

Mark Hennes
Special Projects Supervisor, Capital Area Intermediate Unit

Doing it Ourselves

Over the next few weeks, our thinking began to crystallize around three objectives. First, we wanted our grant making to encourage models that personalized learning for all students. We adopted the design attributes espoused by the NGLC regional fund competition. So, rather than imposing a specific, personalized learning model on the grantees, grantees would design their own model with the following guiding principles in mind:

  • Learning experiences for all students tailored to their individual developmental needs, skills, and interests;
  • Teaching practices that empower students, utilize continually refreshed performance data, and integrate technology as a method of teaching; and
  • Leadership and management practices that inspire, motivate, and support transformation.

Second, we wanted our grant making to benefit all of the schools in our region, not just the winning ones. As an ESA, our fundamental mission is to work for the betterment of all of our local districts and schools, not just some. So, whichever school was selected to receive a grant would be required to share their progress and experiences with others.

Our third objective would be for our grant making process to build our own capacity in blended and personalized learning. We have a very experienced and talented coaching and consultative staff, but we knew that we weren’t adept at every innovative instructional practice and classroom design option in use across the country.

Planting the “Seeds”

In the fall of 2014, we kicked off our first regional grant competition. This first round was open to public middle and high school building teams from school districts within our catchment area. We believe that in order for transformation to be successful, it must happen at the school building level—led by a building principal with the buy-in and support of their teachers. We had seen too many top-down initiatives fall apart after a year or two, so we knew that changing nearly every aspect of an existing teaching and learning environment had to be a bottom-up approach, led by a building principal with the support of teacher leaders.

Another feature of our first round was that the planning and implementation must result in a systemic, building-wide change in three years. We would be able to provide some of the financial resources to make this happen but not all. Therefore, by committing to support this change, the district’s leaders were committing their resources to ensure completion. Building-wide change also means that we would not consider grant applications for a “pilot,” “school-within-a-school,” or other limited implementation. Intuitively, we knew that, in order for personalized learning to be successful, it must happen every day, in all classrooms, and in all content areas. If the entire building wasn’t involved, any changes just starting to show success might falter due to misaligned bell schedules, uneven infrastructure, staff jealousies, etc. We also knew that a successful, building-wide implementation would create its own momentum for change across the district. Middle schoolers leaving the 8th grade would arrive at their high schools expecting to exercise the “voice” and “choice” inherent in their middle school experience. Parents, and even staff, of the “non-personalized learning” schools would begin to demand that their schools transform. Thus, by planting these “seeds,” we would be growing innovation across the district.

In September 2014, we received sixteen building team applications from eleven different school districts for our first planning grant. We awarded $50,000 grants to three schools (one high school and two middle schools). Over the next five months, these three teams attended national conferences, visited innovative schools, and met to plan and design their new teaching and learning environments. These teams told us that the two most valuable aspects of the planning phase were travel and time. Traveling to see innovative classrooms in action and to engage with the teachers and students allowed them to fully comprehend how the different models operated. Similarly, having time to talk, think, discuss, and argue allowed the teams to coalesce around a model that would work for their school. Additionally, this contributed to the team gelling and to gaining buy-in for the new model.

Launching into Action

In March 2015, we received seven building team applications from six different school districts for our first launch grant. Three of these applications were from planning grant awardees, but we were delighted to receive applications from four other buildings that had not been awarded the initial grant but had continued with their own research and planning efforts. We awarded one $400,000 launch grant to one of these teams. We time-phased the grant funds so we could have accountability for achieving annual transformation goals. We also provided . of the grant as in-kind support from a new blended learning coach, who will now embed 50% of his time with the grantee over the first two award years. His increased expertise will be shared with our other coaches, which will in turn be shared with other schools we support.

As I write this article, we have just announced the winners of our second round of planning grants. This round focused on upper elementary schools in order to plant these proof points in our region and to expand our capacity at the elementary level. This time, we awarded lower dollar amounts ($20,000 each), so more schools could benefit from the planning experience. We look forward to accompanying them along this journey and to replicating our model across Pennsylvania.

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