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.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”