When the Juan Morel Campos Secondary School attendance team met last Friday to figure out why so many students were missing class, their secret weapon glowed on the wall behind them.
The image on the screen looked like a basic spreadsheet created with Google Drive, the free online software. Actually, it was a powerful tool that helps schools transform the contents of several clunky education department databases into an intricate picture of student behavior. Now, school staffers can dig deep into the records of individual students or zoom far out to find school-wide patterns.
In September, the city rolled out the tool in its new “community schools,” where students and their families receive an array of social services, and in low-performing “Renewal” schools like Campos, an East Williamsburg school that serves grades 6-12.
The spreadsheet projected on the wall at Campos Friday showed the number of days each student had been late or absent this year, and how those numbers compared with last year. The team zeroed in on students who had missed multiple days in recent weeks — a group of more than 100 students in a school of about 630.
Soon, the screen revealed staff members’ notes that told the stories behind the numbers: One girl had just given birth. Other students had moved or been suspended. One truant boy had a habit of staying up late to play video games, while a couple was undergoing relationship turmoil (“Romeo and Juliet gone bad — real bad,” a guidance counselor told the group). The notes described steps the school had taken to intervene, such as counseling sessions, parent calls, and home visits.
Line by line, the new data tool highlighted the many obstacles the school will face as it tries to get more students to class. (Last year, 45 percent of Campos students missed an alarming 20 out of 180 school days, according to Principal Eric Fraser.) But it also revealed progress, as when Fraser asked to see the table sorted by students with improved attendance.
“Those are huge,” he said, going through the names. “We have to celebrate these guys early to keep that gain.”
The city has promised the 94 schools in its Renewal program nearly $400 million in new support. That includes everything from teacher training to health clinics and free eyeglasses. But after analyzing the schools, officials found that many struggle to take advantage of one engine of school improvement already available to them — the vast supply of data the city collects about students’ backgrounds and academic records.
To address this, the city called on New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit known for helping schools harness the power of student data. The group’s solution was simple: feed the information from the city’s different databases into easy-to-use spreadsheets, then teach schools how to use them to track student performance and make plans to help.
Fraser, the Campos principal, said the tool has already spared his staff from printing out reams of reports from different data systems and scouring them for patterns.
“It’s pulling up data from tens of reports and putting them on one line of a spreadsheet for each kid,” he said. That saves the school “some really intensive time that was spent cross-referencing printouts of things that are now right at our fingertips.”
The city’s school-data systems are not typically known for being user friendly. The attendance database known as ATS is a decades-old program resembling MS-DOS that users navigate by typing four-letter codes. Even veteran school workers can struggle to pull useful information out of the system.
Francisco Hicks, the attendance coordinator at New Directions Secondary School in the Bronx, said that if he wanted to track a student’s attendance over time, “I’d probably have to print out a report daily and compare it sheet by sheet.”
Schools confront similar challenges when using a separate program, called STARS, which records student grades and tracks credits. High school guidance counselors often print out student transcripts and manually compare them, highlighters in hand, to state graduation requirements.
These technical difficulties are especially worrisome at Renewal schools, where the average attendance rate is nearly seven points below the city average, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. The four-year graduation rate at Renewal high schools is nearly 19 points behind the average city school.
Education department officials are convinced that Renewal schools could narrow these gaps by keeping closer tabs on student attendance and academic performance, but they’ve struggled in the past with making that data easily accessible.
Last spring, for example, department officials had hoped to send schools detailed lists of seniors who needed additional credits to graduate. They didn’t manage to get those lists out until late May, just weeks before the end of classes. Even then, the lists only came together with last-minute help from New Visions.
The nonprofit, which helps manage about 80 public schools across the city, is known for providing its schools with tools and training to help make sense of student data. It signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the city in July to share its data tools with the 130 city schools that are part of the Renewal and community school programs, and to provide training in how to use them. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat shares a board member with New Visions.)
The tools, which were made using Google Sheets, allow schools to view information from different parts of their data systems in single spreadsheets that can be easily sorted in ways that city systems cannot. For instance, a school can pull up a list of seniors who still must pass their English Regents and quickly see whether those students have enrolled in Regents-prep classes and when they are scheduled to retake the test.
At Campos, staff members have used the academic-tracking tool to target students who need Regents tutoring during lunch or free periods. They’ve used the attendance tool to target students for phone calls or rewards. Eventually, they plan to use the tools to identify subjects that are tripping up many students so they can offer those classes during the extra period that is required in all Renewal schools.
Staff members can input the interventions they’ve tried, such as art therapy or tutoring. They can add details about which staffer is responsible for monitoring each student’s progress. And the information is now in one place where key staff members, from the principal and guidance counselors to new service coordinators, can see it.
The city made a point of giving access to the service coordinators, who are technically employees of the partner agencies that are helping community and Renewal schools manage all the new services they are adding. The coordinators, whose official title is “community school director,” had to sign confidentiality agreements in order to access the data tools. In the past, service providers often had to ask school employees to print out student records from restricted databases.
“There was always a pretty significant lag time,” said Katie Hahn, Campos’ service coordinator who works for the social-service agency Grand St. Settlement.
Now, said Hahn, who ran Friday’s attendance meeting, the data is “right at my fingertips.”
Chris Caruso, the education department’s executive director of community schools, said it is crucial that schools and their new partners “have access to the same data at the same time.”
“This a push to make data more friendly,” he said, “and to help schools make decisions based on data in a more efficient way.”