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.”

good news bad news

New York City is sending fewer latecomer students to Renewal schools, but questions remain

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
John Adams High School in Queens, a Renewal school.

New York City is sending significantly fewer latecomer students — typically among the most difficult to serve — to schools in its flagship turnaround program.

Over the past three years, the number of students sent to schools in the city’s Renewal program outside the normal admissions process has declined 19 percent, according to new data from the education department, outpacing a 10 percent decrease in schools citywide over the same period.

The reduction suggests that schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has stuck to her promise to stem the tide of latecomer students — often newly arriving immigrants, students with special needs, and those who struggle with homelessness — to some of the city’s most struggling schools.

But it’s unclear if that policy change is making a significant difference on the ground.

For one thing, since Renewal schools have been losing students, the proportion of latecomer students has essentially gone unchanged. Even though the city has sent a smaller number of latecomer students to these schools, roughly one in five students at Renewal schools were over-the-counter last year, just slightly less than three years ago.

“It’s a good start,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who authored a report that found the city disproportionately sends those students to low-performing high schools. But “one out of every five is a tough challenge for schools that are already challenged,” Fruchter added. “I would have hoped for a reduction in the percentage.”

Every year, thousands of students enter city schools outside the normal admissions process, students who are generally harder to serve and can disrupt school schedules mid-year. But since New York City’s middle and high school admissions process is largely based on a choice process, less desirable and lower-performing schools tend to have more open seats for latecomers.

When the city designated an original 94 Renewal schools as low performing enough to merit an influx of extra resources, some school staffers wondered how they were supposed to stoke “fast and intense” improvements while the city continued to send them high-need students mid-year. That’s partly why Fariña announced two years ago those schools would receive fewer latecomers.

But sending fewer students to struggling schools can also create problems, and has sparked concern among some school leaders. Most Renewal schools have been shedding students for years, so limiting the number of latecomers may contribute to enrollment problems that can result in less funding or potentially even closure.

At Harlem’s Coalition School for Social Change, for instance, enrollment has dropped 44 percent over the past three years, a main reason principal Geralda Valcin is planning to ask the city to send more students over the counter — not fewer.

“Will it be harder with these kids coming on board? Absolutely,” Valcin said. “But with less kids I get less money” for teachers.

Education department officials emphasized that they work individually with schools, superintendents and families to find appropriate placements for latecomers, and said that enrollment declines at Renewal schools have started to level off.

“We’ve worked to support steady turnaround at Renewal schools by helping schools balance the need to grow enrollment with their ability to serve [over-the-counter] students,” Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, wrote in an email. He added that as Renewal schools see improvements, it might make sense to send them more latecomers.

Figuring out how to equitably place latecomer students has been a consistent challenge across administrations. Under Mayor Bloomberg, the city often clustered students who arrived mid-year at struggling schools and those the city was in the process of closing. Some of those problems have not completely gone away: As Chalkbeat reported earlier this year, the city sent some latecomer students to Renewal schools it planned to close, and Renewal schools still enroll more latecomers than the 15 percent city average.

The statistics education officials provided for this story does not include school-level breakdowns, making it difficult to tell if the city is still clustering lots of latecomers at certain Renewal schools, or whether struggling schools outside the Renewal program have received fewer latecomers.

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they see the current distribution of late-arriving students as a problem. But at least one Renewal school leader said it’s important for the city to pay attention to how those students are distributed system-wide — not just whether one segment of struggling schools are seeing fewer of them.

“I think all schools should be receiving students over the counter in equal and fair ways,” said one Renewal school leader. “Renewal schools should not be treated differently than others.”

Rhode rage

New study deepens nation’s school turnaround mystery, finding little success in Rhode Island

PHOTO: Anjelika Deo / Creative Commons

The country’s smallest state tried to accomplish a big task in 2012: improve its struggling schools without firing principals or making other dramatic changes.

Instead, Rhode Island gave schools the option to do things like add common planning time for teachers, institute culturally appropriate instruction for students, and expand outreach to families.

A new study on those efforts says they didn’t help — and in some cases may have even hurt — student achievement.

It’s the latest in a string of research painting a grim picture of school turnaround efforts under the No Child Left Behind waivers the Obama administration granted to states. Recent studies show that those turnaround plans did not improve student achievement in Louisiana or Michigan, though they did have a positive effect in Kentucky.

The analysis, published in the peer-reviewed journal Educational Policy, leaves states in a tough spot. Under the new federal education law, ESSA, they are still required to identify and intervene in the lowest performing 5 percent of schools. What to do, though, has perplexed education policymakers for years.

The Rhode Island study suggests one option that may not be effective, at least at raising test scores: simply letting struggling schools choose from a menu of broad changes.

The researchers, Shaun Dougherty and Jennie Weiner of the University of Connecticut, looked at two tiers of struggling schools in the state: “warning” and “focus” schools. Schools in both categories had to choose four changes to make. Focus schools, the lower-performing group, had to select from a prescribed list, while warning schools could also could come up with their own strategies.

“Almost none of the schools chose the most severe options because of none of them had to,” said Dougherty.

Based on two years of data, the results were largely discouraging. Turnaround schools did not boost reading or math scores more than comparable schools that didn’t have to make any changes. And the focus schools, which had to make even more changes, actually seemed to do worse than the turnaround schools that made fewer.

“More interventions might not always be better and may have unintended consequences that impact a school’s long term ability to improve,” write Dougherty and Weiner.

An important caveat for the studies in Rhode Island, Michigan, and Louisiana, which all used a similar method, is that it’s impossible to know how the accountability system affected schools that narrowly avoided being labeled low-performing and served as the comparison group for the turnaround schools. If those schools made extensive improvements for fear of facing turnaround in future years, that might mask gains in the turnaround schools.

Still, the latest research adds to the pile of studies showing the challenges of improving long-struggling schools.

Another Obama-era federal school turnaround program — School Improvement Grants — also showed disappointing results. Schools receiving those grants also had to implement a broad array of strategies, but had less power to choose which changes to make. The grants also came with additional federal money and in most cases required firing the principal.

There is some evidence that providing additional money and support, paired with a requirement that schools replace a significant share of staff, is a more promising approach. But this is challenging to implement in areas where teachers are scarce and can prompt fierce political and community pushback.

In fact, back in 2010, the Obama administration faced one of its first major rifts with national teachers unions after it backed the large-scale firing — consistent with federal turnaround rules — of teachers at a Central Falls, Rhode Island high school.

Few schools ended up implementing such a drastic approach, though. In Central Falls, the district ultimately agreed to rehire all of the fired teachers.