Spokane Schools keep high-risk students in school

Spokane is the second-largest school district in the state of Washington. “We have slightly less than 30,000 students, and we have higher poverty than the state average,” explains Chief Academic Officer Steven Gering in this interview. “One of the big areas that we've been focusing on is improving our student data, and really trying to improve our dropout rates.” Hear how Tableau has helped keep Spokane's high-risk students in school.

I've been able to give them tools to help them be more effective principals and teachers, to get more kids to graduate, more kids to college.

Tableau: In your mission to keep more kids in school, what is data’s role?
Steven Gering, Chief Academic Officer: I'm a big data nerd, so I really think data has the impetus to drive change. It gets people focused on what we need to do and why we need to do it. Unlike anything else, data can take our personal opinion out of it, show us what's actually happening with our kids, and leads us to some thoughtful decision making. It gets us moving in a way that nothing else can do besides data.

Tableau: Tell us about the Early Warning System in your district.
Steven: The early warning system is really exciting. There's been a lot of research and literature about schools creating an early warning system, so we had a researcher study 7,000 students, most of whom who have graduated, some who didn't. She then told us that 86 percent of the dropouts had early warning signs or tipping points. If we could have intervened, we could have probably kept them on track.

So she identified tipping points from third through sixth grade. There were different tipping points for middle school and different tipping points for high school. What we've done slightly different than most school districts is now we took that research and we turned it into a dashboard through Tableau.

Tableau: Do you have a lot of data on these students?
Steven: In education, we're drowning in data; we get massive amounts of data. As a high school principal, I'd get volumes of reports that were generated downtown and sent to us— just piles of paper that we were somehow supposed to make sense of.

Tableau: So the dashboard helps you manage and analyze all that data?
Steven: Yes, but also we were able to customize it with Tableau. Anything else off the shelf would never have had the flexibility to do what we're trying to do with our schools. The goal is to act early. If you see a kid exhibiting warning signs, get to them early, and support them and keep them in school. If we can do that, we really believe we can get to our goal of having single digit dropout rates

Tableau: What kind of insights did you find with the Early Warning System?
Steven: We learned that transitions are critical for kids. And we've always known that, but now we're seeing the transitions and when kids are exhibiting the tipping points. For example, when kids transition up to the middle school, it can be a really difficult transition, and about 20 percent of our dropouts start showing warning signs in middle school. They start having behavior problems or start having discipline problems or their test scores start dropping. At the transition to high school, about 40 percent of our kids start exhibiting some warning signs that we'd never seen before. Some of our visualizations are helping catch kids fast and intervene.

Tableau: Where do you store your data?
Steven: We have large amounts of data and it's all over the place. We have student management systems; people have Excel spreadsheets. We get SAT data, state test data, student attendance data, teacher attendance data, everything. We have volumes of data in databases, warehouses, student management systems, and business systems. We integrated our data via SQL Server into a data warehouse and then use Tableau to visualize our data.

Tableau: How do you distribute the data to users?
Steven: We put it in a web-based tool, and then people could get to it. We've launched this to every administrator and every teacher in our school district; we have user authentication for everybody. They log on and are allowed to see the data for students that they actually work with. Once they can get there and see that cool visualization, then they really get excited and they can alter it and do things with Tableau that they couldn't do in any other product.

Tableau: How has Tableau changed day-to-day work?
Steven: Counselors and administrators have been really excited because it's brought a whole bunch of data sources together that they've never been able to see together. In the old system, it was like I would see your name, I'd click on you, I'd open it up, I'd see your data, I'd shut that down, I'd go to the next person. Teachers had to go like 30 times into 30 different kids, or if you're a secondary teacher, 150 kids. It just kind of overwhelmed you if you wanted to see particular data. So to have it all there in one location, that's been really helpful to teachers.

We don't want them spending hours and hours creating Excel spreadsheets; we want them acting on the data. Our goal is to get it into their hands quickly so that they can manipulate and alter the data really fast and go do their work.

Tableau: How has analytics changed the education systems?
Steven: We're asking principals and teachers to use data unlike ever before. We're asking folks to make changes in students' test scores, in students' trajectories, get students to college. We're asking more of our school system than we've ever asked before. So it's critical that they have the data to act on, and they know exactly how they're doing and what they're able to do.

Tableau has increased the efficiency of what we're able to deliver data. It’s so much smarter, more effective and targeted; it allows everyone to act quicker. They used to send their data downtown. A month later, they’d get this Excel spreadsheet and it was too late. They'd say, "I'm already moved on, I needed it that week." Now with Tableau, we can deliver it within 24 or 48 hours.

I've been able to give them tools to help them be more effective principals and teachers to get more kids to graduate, more kids to post-secondary, more kids to college.

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