Seeing Off Cohort 12: Saying yes to something big, ambitious, and unknown

Rebecca Marshall HeadshotSDP Senior Programs Manager Rebecca Marshall highlights the impact of cohort 12 fellows upon their graduation (fall 2020 – summer 2022)

On September 1st, 2022, the 12th cohort of the Strategic Data Project Fellows completed their fellowship programming. It takes a special kind of person to stare straight at the early days of a global pandemic and say “yes” to something big, ambitious, unknown, and hard. But that’s what these fellows did.

Many were nominated into the fellowship, who said yes to these additional demands and responsibilities, even as they were able to see somewhat the challenges coming down the road. Some were hired as new employees, who decided to take on a totally new challenge and role, remotely! Others moved themselves and their families sometime over the course of this cohort.

I expect each fellow said “yes” because they had hope. Hope that things would get better and that they could make a difference, make something better in this period of unprecedented disruption in education. And they did. They have.

For a few fellows, their biggest impacts were made on questions directly stemming from the pandemic and its disruptions to education.

  • At the California Department of Education, Nedim Yel tackled the digital divide in one of the country’s largest states. His work to map and understand the gap informed over 30 bills in California’s latest legislative session and his office recently awarded $1 million dollars to a small group of researchers and inventors as part of their global innovation challenge.

  • In Guilford County Schools, Nasaa Enkhbold designed a better way to track virtual student attendance. He built the district new custom attendance dashboards looking at how students interacted with Canvas. Not only did Nasaa’s efforts result in financial savings by creating an internal dashboard, but he also helped identify an additional 4-6% of students in need of support who were being “missed” by the original calculation.

  • To better understand the socio-emotional and mental wellbeing of their learners dealing with the pandemic and opioid addiction, Megan Peters and her colleagues at the West Virginia Department of Education launched a new, free Learning Environment Survey. In just its second year, over 25,000 students from over 200 schools have responded. The insights from this survey are being used to work towards the shared goal that every student has at least one caring adult in their life. 

Others in this cohort took this opportunity to focus on particularly vulnerable students, like those facing truancy or mobility, and those with special needs. These students were already underserved by the education system before the pandemic, and they and students like them will benefit from the efforts of SDP Fellows over the past two years.

  • Felicia Ford wanted to address the challenge of truancy in her community at Norfolk Public Schools. She used her role as a convener to create a community event promoting the importance of attendance at school and learned more about students and families’ experiences with attendance and absenteeism. This event raised awareness, provided support to 500+ students and families, and brought 15 local nonprofits along who are also incorporating attendance-focused strategies into their programming.

  • At the Consortium Partnership Network, Deanna Childress conducted a multi-method research project with students and educators to investigate the mobility of students in St. Louis. She found that a large share of mobile students were moving between schools in the same district, and that varying enrollment policies and clerical inconsistencies could be contributing factors. She is now focused on sharing these findings and potential strategies with schools in the wider district and throughout the state of Missouri.

  • During the pandemic, Jason Crowley collaborated with others in the state of Iowa to develop a differentiated and inclusive district accountability system to improve the quality of education received by students with special needs. The accountability system, underpinned by Jason’s new model and carefully crafted with stakeholder input, is being fully implemented this fall, and will ensure that the Department’s resources and supports are being administered where they’re needed most.

  • Paul Govoni created a dashboard for the primary stakeholders involved in the Providence Talks Replication (PTR) grant, which implemented different combinations of LENA programs in five cities, using tools to strengthen language development in young children. Although program-specific monitoring tools existed, the dashboard fulfilled an internal and external strategic need by offering a city-level view, allowing users to compare recruitment, retention, and impact metrics across LENA programs, across sites, and across time.

We have immense respect and appreciation for the educators and school leaders who have weathered the past two years of disruption with resilience and care for their students. This respect informs all our work, but it was especially relevant for those who looked at how teachers and principals enter the profession, and what their experiences can tell us about what future teachers and principals will need.

  • In Cincinnati Public Schools, Sanika Moghe found that only 30% of applicants for open principal positions met the minimum screening criteria, with just 1.2 finalists per vacancy. To address this important problem, Sanika and the CPS team built a new leadership pipeline system which increased visibility into the candidate pool, provided consistent screening, and created support for assistant principals who are future principalship candidates. 

  • In Texas, a large state with many homegrown teachers, Jeremy Landa found that the teacher labor markets weren’t uniform – some regions imported almost half of their teachers. Surprisingly, his research showed that large numbers of new hires by LEAs were on intern certificates or returning from a leave of absence. His analyses are now being used to help frame and guide the conversations of the Texas Teacher Vacancy Task Force, as they work to improve teacher preparation and working conditions for teachers in the state.

  • At Trying Together, Peter Sloan sought to evaluate the impact of the Child Development Associate (CDA) Certificate on teacher retention. Peter collected data on CDA participants via surveys and worked with past participants to discover their thoughts on the CDA program and whether it had contributed to future job attainment. His research showed that the program is successfully assisting in teacher retention: 89% of the participants from prior years were still in childcare. Peter also found that more experienced teachers were participating, which indicated an opportunity to attract early career (2-5 years) teachers. This work has already led to more investment in CDA programs by Trying Together to expand the early childhood educator workforce.

  • In Georgia, where 42% of third graders read at the proficient learning level, Theresa Magpuri-Lavell investigated the training and preparation of elementary teachers in the University System of Georgia (USG). Her findings are being used to inform educator preparation and future research.

We’ve all been in situations where processes and systems were lacking, and the disruptions of the past two years have strained things further in many places. However, when it comes to work that serves students and learning, there’s an imperative to do as much as we can with what we have. And fellows did—in different ways and different places, they worked hard to fill key gaps “where business as usual” just wasn’t cutting it.


  • Izzy Rubin and her colleagues at The Opportunity Trust found that the data provided by the state of Missouri wasn’t meeting the needs of local education agencies and partners. The Trust synthesized a rubric of effective education practice, called the Five Dimensions, and carefully worked with a set of pilot partners to pull key data into simple and effective visuals. These measures are filling key information gaps to improve performance and are sparking new conversations with leaders and boards who now have a transparent and accessible source of evidence on progress.

  • At Saga Education, increased demand for tutoring support in the pandemic led to great expansion as well as challenges for their staff to monitor and direct institutional support. Currently in a build year, Cathryn Cook is developing site health scores to help regional directors easily digest data and help their teams. Her work has highlighted important data gaps and led to important discussions about high-quality practice, leading to better tutoring for students.  

  • Youssef Shoukry and his colleagues at Transcend Education needed a shared way of measuring student experience that was not grounded in some assumptions of traditional schooling. They set out to build their own measure and created a rigorous new scale measuring student experience that has been pilot tested and validated. This new measure has allowed additional insights from student voice to rise to the forefront and is being used to inform Transcend’s future work in the sector. 

  • During 2021, ImpactTulsa identified two new K-12 priorities: teacher diversity and postsecondary opportunities. Calen Clifton conducted research on student participation in Advanced Placement which demonstrated that students of color were, on average, 34% less likely than their white peers to participate in at least one AP course during a year. To examine the priority of teacher diversity, Calen found that, on average, assignment to a same-race teacher this year is associated with a 2-percentage point increase in the probability of AP participation next year. This suggests that strategic use of teacher diversity can meaningfully reduce differences in AP course-taking between students of color and their white peers.

Some fellows went big and overhauled the data systems they worked within entirely, producing big results in operational efficiency with real material impacts for schools and educators.

  • In Iowa City Schools, principals average 20 hours per year collecting and reporting the data needed for their school improvement plans. Austin Wells and his colleagues redesigned the entire data system and reporting to meaningfully connect data sources and automate these common performance reports. Principals now spend no time collecting or gathering these data, saving almost 515 hours of principals’ time across all 28 schools in the district, and reallocating time to analyzing performance data with their teams, supporting teachers, and working directly with students and families.

  • Kristen Carroll led the overhaul of the entire data strategy of the Douglas County Schools System. After a needs assessment, she discovered basic data collection inconsistencies in student tracking that lost the district funding. After the first year of implementation of new data collection protocols, their FTE funding grew by $2 million dollars. These early and big wins helped create momentum, and her efforts expanded quickly from data collection to also building data literacy and increasing the responsiveness of their analysis work. Principals and other data customers are now moving away from summative only data and are regularly requesting new reports to help them reflect on formative data on their schools.

  • At Orange County Public Schools, Hugo Hu conducted a research study to discover early warning indicators and course-taking patterns for students graduating from OCPS who majored in high-demanding fields and dropped out of college. Using predictive analytics, student-level demographics, discipline actions, course schedules, and assessment data were analyzed to identify the predictors of the outcomes in six stages of the postsecondary pathway. As a result of the study, Yu developed an interactive dashboard to demonstrate the probability of succeeding on each postsecondary outcome by various early warning indicators.

  • To identify children at risk of not reading proficiently by grade 3, Annette Pladevega-Sablan, worked with the Regional Educational Laboratory Pacific and an early learning task force in the CNMI Public School System to pilot an Early Warning System in reading. As a result of the pilot, Annette was tasked to operationalize and scale the pilot for all elementary schools in the Commonwealth. By involving early adopters in the training plan, they became the support system for new data teams, contributing to EWS buy-in and interest in middle and high schools in adopting EWS processes as a potential solution to improve math instruction.

Not only did fellows start this work in a tough time, but each faced their own obstacles along the way. Some of these were predictable, and others were surprises they just had to adapt to.

  • At Caliber Public Schools, Cormac Harkins worked carefully to build new accountability plans with the school leaders of their growing network of schools and prototyped a tool to monitor the progress of those tools in real time. As a result, not only is Caliber’s data infrastructure stronger than it was before, but their culture around data and accountability is as well.

  • In Atlanta Public Schools, Gilbert Lee carefully designed college and career readiness dashboards to meet the needs of school-based counselors and district-level staff overseeing system supports. School and district staff now have these new insights to start the year ahead, where they can be used for various counseling purposes throughout the academic year.

There is a lot that is difficult about the work that each SDP Fellow set out to do. Much of it was technically complex, but other challenges included asking collaborators across the sector to think in new ways or change how they did their work. Luckily, fellows didn’t have to do it alone.

  • Brian Mudrak’s work to expand Kentucky’s Multi-State Postsecondary Report (MSPR) would be almost impossible without the partnership of the Coleridge Initiative. Their administrative data research facility allows different states to connect their microdata in a secure environment, which allows states like Kentucky to track graduates of their postsecondary institutions across state lines. This partnership enabled Brian to design the insight rich dashboards that now form the MSPR and has helped postsecondary institutions in interstate metropolitan areas get a more truthful picture of how their graduates perform in the workforce. Not only are these insights locally relevant, but Brian and his colleagues preserved their lessons from this effort in a way that can be adopted by other states as well.

  • Santiago Guerrero helped demystify the Uniform Chart of Accounts (UCOA) database at the Rhode Island Department of Education so school and district administrators could incorporate relevant financial information into their planning and decision-making processes, and align resources with strategies, priorities, and goals. Through collaboration with colleagues at the Statewide Efficiencies Office, the work accelerated. Santiago built UCOA dashboards to conduct insightful initial analyses and along with his colleagues, is working directly with LEAs to continuously identify new information that can be used for decision-making.

  • In East Cleveland CSD, 90% of instructors surveyed report they feel adept at using data from multiple sources and synthesizing results to inform instruction, however, over 60% of teachers also reported that they most frequently used and relied upon the district gradebook system. Tom Domzalski and his colleagues wanted to support their instructors in getting a full picture of student performance, to support their collective efforts to transform after state intervention. To remedy this issue, the district provided instructional coaches to provide technical assistance and coaching in the daily classroom setting. Tom also helped adjust the teacher walkthrough tool so that evaluators can monitor the outcomes of teachers’ use of data in lesson planning. After this year, they are waiting to see the results of this additional support in their annual staff satisfaction surveys.

  • At TEACH, Stephanie Severe led the first program evaluation of TEACH’s long-term impact on the educator talent pipeline in two states. By building relationships and collaborating with state education agencies in TEACH’s regions to obtain the necessary data, Stephanie was able to match program participants and understand how many TEACH-supported applicants graduated from an educator preparation program, became certified and entered the workforce. As a result of this work, they now have an established system to continue to monitor TEACH’s impact throughout the year.

SDP Fellows will continue to build upon their strong work, no matter where their journey takes them next. Anyone looking to make a similar difference in our education sector should carry forward these lessons from fellows’ work:

  • Help our schools and systems understand the pandemic’s lasting effects, especially on the students who are experiencing the intersecting crises of the pandemic and systemic racism. Use this information to help ensure system’s efforts for recovery, both with respect to academics and student well-being, are able to meet the challenge ahead.

  • Think always about the students who fall through the system’s cracks and ensure that resources are effectively directed to those who need it the most.

  • Ensure that the pipelines for talented school leaders and qualified educators remain robust, despite the demands of the role. Help systems anticipate vacancies and shortfalls, so they are prepared to meet them, rather than caught off-guard.

  • Forever be on the lookout for ways that business as usual is failing to meet its promise and be ready to innovate and step in where you can.

  • Be nimble and adaptable in the face of unforeseen obstacles, and create coalitions to make your work possible, and to help sustain its impact.

Above all, we are grateful to each fellow for their hard work, hard-won change, and the impact they’ve had on their organizations and the students and educators they serve. We are also grateful to each fellow for the impact I know that’s ahead.


This blog post was adapted from Rebecca Marshall’s comments at the Cohort 12 SDP Fellow graduation on September 1, 2022