Data-Driven Decision Making Builds Success Afterschool
By Bryan Kitch
"The initial thought behind NAZA was that we really wanted a strong connection to our local school district," explains Jim Williamson, Senior Director of Nashville After Zone Alliance for the South Nashville area.
"Nashville's previous mayor tapped a group of community leaders shortly after he took office in his first term and asked them to gather information regarding opportunities for young people in the city. They spent a year researching and developing their report — and there were a couple of key pieces in that report that led to the creation of NAZA."
Something that many outside-of-school-time (OST) and afterschool programs have struggled with is proving their impact through data. By coordinating their efforts with the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) from the start, the founders of NAZA knew they would be able to build a case using correlation data.
"Nashville as a whole had some really great things going on for elementary school and high school students, but we saw a dip in middle school participation in out of school time opportunities. Research showed that if a middle school student was involved in a high-quality afterschool program at least three days a week, the likelihood that they were going to graduate on time, and go on to some kind of post-secondary education, went up exponentially. You had to have the dosage, and you had to have the quality."
The key to it all, for the likes of NAZA, was to show that key connection between these high-quality programs and what was going on during the school day.
"We want our young people to graduate from high school and be prepared for some kind of post-secondary education. It may not be a university setting, it might be a vocational setting. But our goal as a city was to make sure that they’re prepared."
"Research showed that if a middle school student was involved in a high-quality afterschool program at least three days a week, the likelihood that they were going to graduate on time, and go on to some kind of post-secondary education, went up exponentially."
"In the early years, we worked with the American Institutes for Research in Chicago. They did a preliminary study looking at the first year of data from NAZA, in hopes of putting together some algorithms to show a correlation between participation in high quality out of school time activities and their impact on the district's 'early warning' indicators."
That is, what were the key indicators to look for that might lead to students not finishing high school?
"Those warning signs were school attendance, school behavior, and academic performance. MNPS had adopted those early warning indicators, and because of the partnership with the district, we aligned ourselves accordingly."
When researchers from the AIR looked at NAZA’s data (from 2012–2013), alongside the data from Metro Nashville Public Schools, they found:
In addition to the above, the AIR researchers also "found some evidence that higher program quality and high program attendance were associated with fewer school-day tardies, a higher percentage of school days attended, and greater improvement in social studies grades."
"We believe that the uptick in math and science was because we were offering opportunities for young people to get help with their homework," Williamson speculates. "They are in a position each afternoon to ask someone — whether it’s a staff person or a peer — about these subjects, and have it explained in a way that makes sense to them."
Building Better Outcomes
For Williamson, there have ultimately been two major takeaways from data analysis surrounding afterschool programming.
"One is that quality matters. High-quality programming matters. That's proven every day by how often young people show up for those programs, how they respond, how they engage. That is all about quality.
"Secondly, because we knew quality was so important, we wanted to break down some of the barriers that were preventing students from engaging in these types of high-quality programs. Things like cost, transportation, etc.
"As a result, all of our partner organizations operate their NAZA funded programs at no cost to the families. The other piece was transportation. How are the students going to get to and from the program?"
In many of America’s cities, sprawl is an issue — and transportation a vital link between the kids who need these programs and the opportunities themselves.
"We really tried to tackle those two key pieces, and address those through our partnership with MNPS. Working with the district, we were able to help develop an 'alternative transportation plan,' which means there is a mechanism in place for the school bus to drop a student off somewhere other than their home.
"Now, if there's space on the bus, a student can take the bus from school to a community center, where they are running a high-quality program. And the student’s parents can then pick her up from there after work."
Another alternative has been to host programming within the schools themselves, and then working with the district to provide transportation home from school in the evening.
But it didn't stop there — NAZA also took a look at geography.
"We sought out areas where there were larger numbers of students. We identified specific apartment complexes where there are larger refugee and immigrant populations. We developed a relationship with those complexes to host programming on their premises — they'd either allow us to use a community room, or an unused apartment to house a program.
"It might be small — maybe no more than 15 students — but it's still an opportunity to engage those students."
The benefits quickly extended to the whole community.
"The property managers were super excited, because these programs are keeping kids engaged, and giving them something positive to get involved in," Williamson says. "It's also allowing their staff to interact with the students in a positive way."
"We had developed an in-house data tracking platform that was built by Metro Government’s IT Services," Williamson says. "This allowed for a direct link over to MNPS, so that the flow of information happened seamlessly sending program attendance data to the district's data warehouse."
It was the first of its kind — the product of innovative problem solving on the part of both NAZA and local government. Then came a moment when Metro Nashville Public Schools was making a shift to a new student-management system.
"That bridge that we had built between our own attendance platform and their system was going to go down," Williamson says. "So it was an ideal time for us to ask, is the platform that we have right now working for us? Or is it not? If not, then we need to figure out a Plan B."
Enter UpMetrics. "Through conversations with a contact at the Gardner Center, about what options might be available nationally, they recommended we connect with Drew [Payne, CEO of UpMetrics].
"The Up platform is very user-friendly," Williamson explains. "It's very intuitive in the way it's set up. The feedback that we've gotten from our partners and frontline staff using the application on a regular basis — they love the Up platform.
"Also, particularly from the NAZA perspective, working with [UpMetrics] has been great, because if and when we need an adjustment to be made to the application, it's always been, 'please give us your feedback and help us make this work better for you.'
"We offer feedback, and within a very reasonable amount of time, we see those changes start to show up. It continues to grow even more user friendly. It's one of the things that really has been surprising for us — how quickly, and well, [UpMetrics] responds to feedback."
The robust data of Metro Nashville Public Schools, coupled with a strong partnership between the schools and NAZA, means that in addition to the afterschool data, NAZA also actively engages with teachers and principals to discuss how classroom and afterschool performance are related.
"Attention to program data has allowed us to solidify our reputation within the community — everyone from parents looking for a solid program, all the way up to the local council leaders, and the mayor. It really has helped us set a solid foundation."
Williamson, who has been with NAZA nearly since its beginnings, knows whereof he speaks.
"Eventually, everyone's on board, but you have to go through that process of winning over support. Now, we have principals requesting a NAZA partnership at their school."
He adds: "It takes that solid foundation. And we wouldn't have that foundation without the data and our partnership with MNPS."
Story by Bryan Kitch. Originally published to the UpMetrics blog, Data for Good, on Medium.