data-driven

How the city is using Google Drive to revamp its struggling schools

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.)

Katie Hahn, who works for the nonprofit Grand St. Settlement, is Campos' new service coordinator. The city made a point of giving the coordinators access to the new data tools.
Katie Hahn, who works for the nonprofit Grand St. Settlement, is Campos’ new service coordinator. The city made a point of giving the coordinators access to the new data tools.

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.”

big gaps

Jeffco school board incumbents raise big money, challengers falling behind

The deadline for dropping off ballots is 7 p.m.

School board incumbents in Jefferson County have raised more money collectively than they had at this point two years ago, when the district was in the midst of a heated recall campaign.

The election this year has garnered far less attention, and only two of the three incumbents who replaced the recalled members face opponents in the November election.

Susan Harmon reported raising more than $45,000 and Brad Rupert reported almost $49,000 in contributions through Oct. 12. Ron Mitchell, the sole incumbent without an opponent, raised almost $33,000 during that period.

How much did candidates raise, spend?

  • Susan Harmon, $45,602.33; $30,906.48
  • Brad Rupert, $48,982.34; $30,484.98
  • Ron Mitchell, $32,910.33; $30,479.43
  • Matt Van Gieson, $2,302.39; $478.63
  • Erica Shields, $3,278.00; $954.62

In 2015, the October campaign finance reports showed they had each raised about $33,000.

The two conservative opponents, Matt Van Gieson and Erica Shields, have raised far less. Van Gieson reported $2,302 while Shields reported $3,278.

The three incumbent school board members have considerable contributions from the teacher’s union. Former Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevens donated to Rupert and Mitchell. Former board member Lesley Dahlkemper contributed to all three incumbents. And State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, contributed to Rupert and Harmon.

Van Gieson and Shields both have donations from the Jefferson County Republican Men’s Club.

The next reports will be due Nov. 3.

Follow the money

Groups with a stake in Colorado’s school board elections raise $1.5 million to influence them

The nation's second largest teachers union is spending $300,000 to support a slate of candidates running for the Douglas County school board. Those candidates posed for pictures at their campaign kick-off event are from left, Krista Holtzmann, Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, and Kevin Leung. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Union committees and various political groups have raised more than $1.5 million so far to influence the outcome of school board elections across the state, according to new campaign finance reports.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, and organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, are spending big in an effort to help elect school board members that represent their positions.

It’s become a common storyline in school board elections in Colorado and across the country: On one side, teachers unions hoping to elect members that will improve working conditions and teacher pay, among other things. On the other, education reformers who generally back candidates who support expanding school choice for families, more autonomy for schools and accountability systems that measure school quality, usually based on test scores.

The complete fundraising and spending picture, however, is often murky and incomplete.

State law lays out different rules and disclosure requirements for different types of political committees. The most prevalent this election year appears to be independent expenditure committee, which can raise and spend an unlimited amount of money but are forbidden from coordinating with candidates. (Campaign finance reports for the candidates’ campaigns are due at midnight Tuesday).

Other groups such as Americans For Prosperity work outside the reporting requirements altogether by spending money on “social welfare issues,” rather than candidates. The conservative political nonprofit, which champions charter schools and other school reforms, pledged to spend more than six-figures for “a sweeping outreach effort to parents” to promote school choice policies in Douglas County. The fight over charter schools and vouchers, which use tax dollars to send students to private schools, has been a key debate in school board races there.

Both the union and reform groups operate independent committees. Those committees must report donations and expenditures to the secretary of state. But the donations captured in campaign finance reports are often huge lump sums from parent organizations, which aren’t required to disclose their donations under federal law. (Dues collected out of teachers’ paychecks are often the source for political contributions from unions.)

Several groups are spending money in Denver, where four of the seven school board seats are up for election. The ten candidates vying for those four seats include incumbents who agree with the district’s direction and challengers who do not. The Denver teachers union has endorsed candidates pushing for change.

The Every Student Succeeds group, which has raised almost $300,000 in union donations, is spending the most on one Denver candidate, Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán, who is running for a seat in southwest Denver, and on a slate of four Aurora school board candidates endorsed by Aurora’s teachers union.

The group’s largest donations came from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education, a fund from the Colorado Education Association. Aurora’s teachers union contributed $35,000 to the committee. The DCTA Fund, a fund created by Denver’s teachers union, also contributed $85,000 to the committee.

Some of the group’s union money is also going to a slate of school board candidates in Mesa County and another in Brighton.

Another union-funded group, called Brighter Futures for Denver, has spent all of its money on consultant services for one Denver candidate: Jennifer Bacon, who’s running in a three-person race in northeast Denver’s District 4. The Denver teachers union, which contributed $114,000 to the committee, has endorsed Bacon. The statewide teachers union also contributed money.

The Students for Education Reform Action Committee has spent equal amounts on two Denver candidates. One, Angela Cobián, is running in Denver’s District 2 against Gaytán and has been endorsed by incumbent Rosemary Rodriguez, who isn’t running again. The other is Rachele Espiritu, the incumbent running in District 4. The funds, which were collected during a previous campaign cycle and carried over into this one, have gone toward phone banking, T-shirts and campaign literature.

The group has endorsed Cobián, Espiritu and incumbent Barbara O’Brien, who holds an at-large seat. It did not endorse a candidate in the central-east Denver District 3 race, explaining that it prioritizes “working with communities that reflect the backgrounds and experiences of our members, which are typically low-income and students of color.”

Better Schools for a Stronger Colorado, a committee affiliated with the pro-reform Stand for Children organization, has spent a sizable portion of the more than $100,000 it’s raised thus far on online advertisements and mailers for O’Brien. It has also spent money on mailers for incumbent Mike Johnson, who represents District 3.

Stand for Children has endorsed O’Brien, Johnson and Cobián. The group chose not to endorse in the three-person District 4 race, explaining that both incumbent Espiritu and challenger Bacon had surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Another big spender is Raising Colorado, a group reporting $625,000 in donations from New York’s Education Reform Now — the national affiliate of Democrats for Education Reform. That group is spending money on mailers and digital media for four candidates in Denver: Espiritu, Cobián, Johnson and O’Brien, as well as two candidates for Aurora’s school board: Gail Pough and Miguel In Suk Lovato.

In Douglas County, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers unions has pumped $300,000 into a committee backing a group of candidates known as the “Community Matters” slate that opposes the current direction of the state’s third largest school district.

The committee, Douglas Schools for Douglas Kids, has spent most of its war chest on producing TV, digital and mail advertising by firms in Washington D.C., and San Francisco.

The Douglas County arm of AFT lost its collective bargaining agreement with the district in 2012.

A group of parents that also supports the union-backed slate have formed a committee, as well. So far it has raised $42,750, records show. Unlike the union donation, most donations to this committee were small donations, averaging about $50 per person.

The parent committee has spent about $28,000 on T-shirts, bumper stickers, postage and yard signs, records show.

A group aligned with the state’s Republican party is also spending in Douglas County. The Colorado Republican Committee – Independent Expenditure Committee spent about $25,000 on a mail advertisement supporting the opposing slate, “Elevate Douglas County.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include more information about Americans for Prosperity’s Douglas County plans. It has also been updated to identify two other groups that are spending in Denver and Douglas County.