DIY Accountability

Frustrated with city's data system, teachers build their own

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Created by teachers at the High School for Telecommunication, DataCation collects and analyzes student data, rivaling the city's own database.

When he began teaching at a Bronx high school, Jesse Olsen found the school had a large blind spot when it came to taking attendance.

If a student came to class for the first half of the school day and then skipped out, she’d go down in the official record as being present for the full day. The information holes made it impossible for teachers to know what their students’ true attendance was like, Olsen said.

A new, sophisticated database known as ARIS, for Achievement Reporting and Innovation System, might have been just the thing to solve the problem. But the system only let schools see how many days a student had missed, not how many classes they were skipping.

So Olsen took matters into his own hands, drawing on his computer science training to build an attendance system for his school, Validus Preparatory Academy.  In doing so he joined a growing number of teachers who don’t rely on the city’s data tools to track student information.

Brought into the city’s public schools in 2008 as a major initiative of Chancellor Joel Klein, ARIS cost $80 million to make. It debuted at the same time that Klein began to ask teachers to keep close track of student data and use it to adjust their instruction.

To do that, teachers would need more data. But even after recovering from some of its early glitches, ARIS continues to disappoint. Teachers complain that it offers them too little information and parents say it’s hard to access.

To meet the demand for data, some teachers and schools have created their own content management systems and are selling the products to other public schools.

Olsen’s program, called Impact, has an online attendance system that updates instantly and allows teachers to add comments on students’ behavior. Seeing that ARIS only includes students’ final course grades, he added an online gradebook that shows how students did on individual assignments, how well they’ve learned certain skills, and what work they still need to complete.

Impact is now in 21 New York City schools, which pay between $10 to $25 per student for a year of service. Teach for America recently began using it to track how some of its members’ students’ perform.

“I think when tools are made for districts, New York being the superlative example of a big district, they can only be so useful because they have to generalize,” Olsen said. “They have to make it work for the young and the old, the new and traditional.”

“What you emerge with is a tool that works for everybody but it barely does anything,” he said. “Schools should have a choice. The DOE should say here’s a number of recommended partners, we just need the data, you pick the tool that works in your way.”

Olsen’s suggestion comes at exactly the same time that the city is rethinking how schools use ARIS.

Deputy Chancellor for accountability Shael Suransky said the city will begin piloting a new version of the program called ARIS Local in some schools next spring. Teachers will be able to enter data on students’ progress on reading assessments and chapter tests that the current database doesn’t include.

“What we want in the long run is for ARIS to be a platform like the iPhone is a platform, where people can develop applications and they can draw the data from our central system and format it into easy to use ways,” he said. “ARIS is the first step on that path.”

On candidate for app creation might be DataCation, which emerged several years ago from teachers at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology in Brooklyn. Created with a focus on the No Child Left Behind law’s requirements, the program allows schools to track students’ progress toward graduation, their schedules, and their grades.

The Telecommunication teachers sold DataCation to a company called CaseNEX, which also bought a scheduling program called Skedula that was developed by a former programmer at Herbert Lehman High School.

Last year, about 30 city schools purchased DataCation, a sleek program that lets schools do everything from scheduling classes and tracking credit accumulation to predicting their results on the federal government’s accountability system. The full suite can cost $8,500, but even in the midst of budget cuts, schools are finding ways to cover the expense.

Most DataCation clients are high schools, and many are struggling schools that the city or state could close if their graduation rates don’t rise. For them, being able to single out a group of low-performing students and focus on them is a matter of survival.

“It’s designed to really catch kids that are not identified using any other tools and to monitor their progress and make sure that info is available in a timely manner, not three semesters later,” said CaseNEX CEO Marsha Gartland. “It’s a pretty simple concept, but it can bring a whole new level of order to a school that’s been lacking it.”

One of DataCation’s most popular features allows parents to log in and see their children’s recent grades, attendance, and missing work. Parents can also do this on the ARIS website through the Parent Link, but there’s less information and it’s older.

In another case, a group of staff members at Leon Goldstein High School in Brooklyn formed the LMG Data Group to sell data management software to other schools. Their clients buy FileMaker, an Apple software product, and then the group sets up a customized data aggregation and display program based on what the school wants. This year, nine schools will use the software.

Goldstein Principal Joseph Zaza said the program began in 2006 as an experiment and a way for the school to know more about its students than the DOE’s software would permit.

‘We’ve done a lot more than just track student data,” Zaza said. “We use it to track student behavior. Deans put in behavioral problems and when a student doesn’t behave — doesn’t have a photo ID or is cutting class — then immediately the system emails that information to the guidance counselors and myself so that everybody is informed.”

The school also uses FileMaker to track how many hours of community service its students have done and the software has cut down on the number of lost books by linking students’ ID numbers to the books’ bar codes.

Schools are charged based on the complexity of their data demands, with one-time prices ranging from $5,000 to $40,000.

Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”

reunion

Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.