How do Freshman Success teams help kids?

High School Success, Teachers & Principals | 05/16/2019

Katie Gustainis
Marketing & Communications Director, Stand for Children Washington

At our one-day Freshman Success training for Evergreen School District earlier this year, Stand for Children’s Data & Research Director Monica Cox started the afternoon portion of the workshop with an image of a Fitbit data dashboard.

“Have any of you every looked at one of these?”, she asked. “They’re awesome. With this little piece of plastic on my wrist, I can track how many steps I’ve taken today, how many heartbeats I’ve had, and how many calories I need to consume. But, that amount of data can also be incredibly overwhelming.” She went on to describe how the Fitbit dashboard is designed to help prioritize the data that’s important and use it to create actionable next steps to improve health.

“This is what we have to do with our student data,” She continued. “We need to prioritize what matters and use it to create actionable next steps. This is how we can actually move the needle for kids.”

So far in our blog series on Freshman Success, I’ve recounted the first half of the one-day workshop we provided to Evergreen Public Schools earlier this year. This included explaining why freshman year matters and identifying who is involved in making it happen. Now, in part III, we get down to the nuts and bolts of supporting freshman success, where educators use actionable data to diagnose system gaps and create action plans for students.

Data for Improvement

In order for data to useful to educators, it must be utilized in ways that are focused on improvement. In Using Data to Improve Learning for All, author Nancy Love explains:

“Simply having more data available is not sufficient.  Schools are drowning in data. The problem is marshaling data as the powerful force for change that they are.  Without a systemic process for using data effectively and collaboratively, many schools, particularly those serving high-poverty students, will languish in chronic low performance—no matter what the pressures for accountability.”

Monica emphasized to the Evergreen educators that the goal of analyzing student data in the Freshman Success approach should not be focused on punishment or incentives for educators. Rather, the emphasis should be to help teachers be more effective at supporting student learning. She identified four values of practice in order to implement a data-driven strategy in high schools:

  • Focus conversations on learning, collaborating, and problem-solving rather than shaming, accusing, or strict accountability.
  • The primary goal of data-use is increased educational attainment.
  • Data strategy should use valid, actionable, meaningful indicators.
  • Data is an important tool BUT not everything meaningful can be measured

In Washington, the state superintendent office (OSPI) has created an online dashboard within the Washington School Improvement Framework for every school district to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. OSPI outlines how districts can get started on this process in their Ninth-Grade System Improvement Guide available online.

Diagnosing System Gaps

Once data is in-hand, a critical component of a successful Freshman Success strategy is self-assessment. Educators engaging in this process should ask themselves, “what are our areas of strength and our barriers to improving supports for ninth-graders in our district/school/classroom?”

Habib Bangura, Stand for Children’s Director of Implementation and Continuous Improvement, finished out Evergreen’s workshop by guiding participants through the process of identifying opportunities for intervention using data and diagnosing and addressing gaps in a school system.

By incorporating data into this process and using it to drive the direction of the action plan, Habib explained that schools can identify gaps in support for students based on an informed perspective, rather than guessing what might help most based on inferences. OSPI recommends that schools assess four key components in their system as part of their self-assessment:

Leadership, vision, goals, and continuous improvement

Data use and early warning systems

Multi-tiered systems of support

Personalized learning environment and opportunities

Creating an Action Plan

Once a system for collecting and analyzing data is in place and a team undergoes an honest self-assessment, the work of identifying strategies to best support students can begin.

Whether it’s for one student or for the entire freshman population, the discussion amongst a Freshman Success Team about what to do next will always begin with a strategy that answers the question: “What are we going to do about this issue?” The important part here is taking the next step of getting specific and asking “How specifically are we going to execute on this strategy?” and then team members holding each other accountable for the results.

One place to start in creating an action plan is with a template. OSPI has created the below On-Track Action Plan Template as a guide for educators to create and implement intervention strategies for their school. 

On an individual level, a Freshman Success team can take a slightly shorter, but similarly structured approach to problem-solving a particular student’s intervention needs. This video, produced by the University of Chicago, is a 5 minute sampling of what it sounds like to be involved in a Freshman Success team meeting that utilizes this data-driven and action-oriented approach for a specific student.

Putting It All Together

By the end of our day together in Vancouver, Habib and Monica had walked the room of educators, administrators, and counselors through all the necessary components of building a Freshman Success strategy in their buildings. The workshop allowed our team the opportunity to bring what we learned from taking school districts to the University of Chicago’s Freshman Success Institute last year and bring it back to Washington. In 2019-2020, our goal is to impact at least 30 more schools in Washington with this type of training.

During the 2019 legislative session, the 501c4 advocacy arm of Stand for Children successfully advocated for a pilot project in Washington that will fund five school districts in implementing their own Freshman Success strategy during the 2019-20 school year.

Washington has already decided that Freshman Success is a critical part of student success - Freshman On-Track rates are a core measure in the Washington School Improvement Framework. This pilot project not only provides seed funding for districts, it signals that the legislature believes this approach can work in Washington state. We are excited to partner with OSPI, school districts, and other advocates to ensure Washington students have the support they need from the first day of high school through graduation.

As I recount it for this blog, I’m reminded about the level of openness it takes for people to embrace a new approach - especially in education. It takes flexibility, an open mind and a true commitment to supporting students and improving outcomes for more of them. In my final conclusion post of this series, I’ll tie it all together and give you an update on where we are today.

This blog is part of a series about Freshman On-Track strategies in Washington. You can view the introduction here, part I here, and part II here.

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