getting data right

New student data system for parents aims for simpler, less costly approach

PHOTO: New York City Department of Education
Screenshots of the city's new mobile web site where parents can see basic school data for their children.

Parents will soon have a new, mobile-friendly way to check up on their children’s progress in school.

The Department of Education has developed a website for parents that will replace parts of the defunct Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, or ARIS, a costly and unpopular data warehouse that had been in use since 2008. The new offering, called NYC Schools, is emblematic of the de Blasio administration’s approach to school and student data, which is focused on making the systems understandable to families, not evaluation.

Officials unveiled the system to reporters on Tuesday, which features a simple interface that officials touted as an improvement over ARIS’s more complicated set-up. Parents who log into their account this summer will be able to view their student’s report card grades and daily attendance for this school year. By August it will include class schedules and state test scores, and eventually will include historical data so that parents can track a child’s progress.

“We really started building a tool that was based on what parents asked for, which is simplified navigation, basic information that can be accessed quickly,” said Hal Friedlander, the department’s chief information officer who oversaw the project. Parents have to sign up at their child’s school, which will start registering parents on June 8.

Until December, all parents and teachers had access to basic information about their children through the ARIS system, which launched in 2008 under former Chancellor Joel Klein. Though glitches delayed its rollout, the system included big improvements to data storage for the nation’s largest school district, consolidating information that had been hosted in separate databases for decades. Previously, teachers had to use a variety of data systems to figure out which school their students used to attend, what their test scores were, or how often they missed class.

But the city’s more ambitious goal for ARIS — for its data to be used to improve teaching and learning — never quite materialized. Teachers complained that the data was too limited to guide their instruction, while parents complained that it was difficult to access and did not provide anything more valuable than what they got at parent-teacher conferences or on quarterly report cards. All told, the price tag reached $95 million for the project. In 2012-13, just 3 percent of parents and 16 percent of teachers had logged into ARIS, according to the city.

With participation rates low and maintenance contracts expiring, Fariña announced in November that the city would develop a replacement system internally.

Friedlander said the project is expected to cost no more than $6 million to develop and update over the next four years. The work was completed by developers on staff, who unlike outside contractors weren’t being paid by the hour.

“We’re not trying to make revenue on top of what our costs are,” Friedlander said.

The NYC Schools accounts will be competing with a host of online products that have cropped up in recent years — many in response to frustrations with ARIS — and which provide schools with extra features the city’s tool won’t include. PupilPath, for instance, keeps track of attendance and scores on class tests, and provides students with an instant messaging system to communicate with teachers. Engrade, other product now owned by McGraw-Hill, provides much of the same features.

“Delivery of information online to parents is becoming more commonplace in districts all across the country,” said Peter Bencivenga, president of CaseNEX and DataCation, the companies that developed PupilPath. That product has been used by more than 500 city schools, Bencivenga said.

As the de Blasio administration scraps systems developed by the Bloomberg administration, which used student data to build new accountability systems, officials have emphasized their focus on making that information more family-friendly. Last year, Fariña replaced school progress reports, which included A-F letter grades used to rank and evaluate schools, with “School Quality Snapshots” intended for parents and more detailed “School Quality Guides.”

The department is still working out the precise balance useful and overwhelming. Proposed overhauls of both the guides and the snapshots include more detail than last year’s versions. And some elements of the city’s Where Are They Now reports, which disappeared last year, have reemerged in new data tools developed for principals.

Officials said those tools will also allow teachers to view their students’ data soon, which is something that they haven’t been able to do as easily in the months since ARIS folded.

Some teachers say they have missed having that access since ARIS folded in December. Mark Anderson, a special education teacher in the Bronx, said he now has to retrieve data reports from his school’s secretary, who must print out raw data from another city system he cannot access on his own.

“Before, it took me one minute to pull it up on my laptop,” Anderson said.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.