Using data to run great schools

This is part of a blog series that focuses on how the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation approaches impact investing. In this series, you will read about the foundation’s investment strategy in a particular ed tech solution, and each company’s mission to solve an existing problem in education. You can find the full series here.

Jami O’Toole: Turning education data into information and information into action

Since the foundation’s inception, we have invested in projects and organizations that enable educators to get easy access to the data needed to make informed decisions and take action in schools and classrooms across the country. To make data-driven decision making easier for educators, data across many systems must be brought together and made visual and easily readable. This is imperative since educators have limited time to dig through data and must make on-the-spot decisions.

We recently gave a grant to Schoolzilla – which provides tools that allow educators to easily visualize and analyze a wide spectrum of data – to expand their data integration capability. The grant allowed the company to create an Ed-Fi aligned service for districts to easily access a wide-range of assessment data that historically comes in many disparate files.

Below you will read one of the many ways that Schoolzilla is helping educators turn data into information and information into action.

Valerie Schreiner: Supporting more and more students

When Dr. Kelvin Adams was hired in 2008 as superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS), he knew he had inherited daunting challenges. With $40 million of debt and low test scores, the state school board had recently revoked the district’s accreditation. In order to turn the district around, Dr. Adams implemented many changes, including introducing an intense focus on data. While SLPS has improved and since achieved Provisional Accreditation, the district has developed a Transformation Plan with the goal of achieving full accreditation and supporting a system of excellent schools for all of its students.

In response to the demand from other school systems to share its best practices and tools, Schoolzilla spun out of Aspire Public Schools in early 2013 to become an independent, mission-driven organization. Since then, Schoolzilla has helped thousands of teachers, leaders, and data analysts save time, gain critical insight, and leverage all their data to drive action. Schoolzilla currently partners with over 100 districts and strategic partners, including KIPP: DC, Santa Fe Public Schools, and the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, impacting more than 1.5 million students daily.

Creating a one-stop-shop

By 2015, Dr. Adams was looking for a way to align, monitor, and support the district’s comprehensive Transformation Plan. He knew they needed a “one-stop-shop” data dashboard to quickly identify and address challenges that impeded SLPS from providing quality education for all of its 25,000 students. After a competitive RFP process, SLPS selected Schoolzilla to develop and maintain their dashboard, the Excellent Schools Transformation Tool, to keep track of the district’s key performance indicators at the district, school, and student level. Schoolzilla is now expanding on what they’ve learned from working with SLPS to create and provide new state-accountability aligned, district performance dashboards in a growing number of states this summer. Their aim is to help other districts track a more refined set of leading indicators in real-time so districts can engage in more focused, continuous improvement strategies throughout the year.

SLPS selected Schoolzilla because of its ability to customize data dashboards to address the particular needs and goals of the district. With over 90 automated data integrations with a variety of student data systems, Schoolzilla’s Data Warehouse pulls in all of a school’s key data into one secure location, where it’s organized, checked for data quality, and presented in holistic dashboards and reports so it’s easy to use. This enables educators to make sense of their data, gain critical insights, and make decisions that improve student outcomes.

Understanding the daily challenges

Schoolzilla understands the daily challenges of teachers and school leaders because the team and technology were initially developed within a school system. It all started with a grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in 2008 to improve Aspire’s ability to identify students and schools that needed additional support. Lynzi Ziegenhagen, a computer programmer turned data analyst, was asked to lead the project, and was disappointed to discover that there were no products on the market that could meet the needs of Aspire’s educators. Lynzi and the newly formed Data Innovation team developed an internal data system for Aspire (later known as Schoolzilla) to save educators time and enable data-driven action.

During its five years as part of Aspire, the Schoolzilla team worked in close collaboration with Aspire’s educators and leaders to create relevant data visualizations to help them strategically address the real challenges they were facing in their schools and classrooms. As Lynzi recalls, “We iterated until our teachers and administrators told us we got it right, and until principals and teachers were using the tools on a weekly basis. Knowing the needs of those we serve has helped us help them.  And we will continue this work as long as the need is there.”

Valerie Schreiner is Chief Product Officer at Schoolzilla, PBC.  Ms. Schreiner is a veteran edtech product leader with a passion for partnering with schools to deliver  better results for all students.

Other blogs in this series:

Putting the ‘impact’ back in impact investing
Early impact investing lessons in ed tech
Jordan Meranus: Filling a market gap for English Language Learner educators