data-driven

How New York City is using Google Drive to revamp its struggling schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
The attendance team at Juan Morel Campos Secondary School projected a new student-data tool onto a white board at a recent meeting.

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.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
The new attendance-tracker tool is color-coded to show when students were present, late, or absent. It can be sorted to show which students are most at risk of being “chronically absent.”

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. (Chalkbeat shares a board member with New Visions.)

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
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.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.