The NOLA Public Schools district wants to develop a so-called “Early Warning System” to utilize individual student data — such as attendance, behavior and course performance — to identify students who aren’t on track to graduate and help them.

Last week, district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. informed Orleans Parish School Board members that such a system — a product local charters could use — could help more students stay in school. He also noted it may be able to provide the district with more access to real-time charter school data — fulfilling a concern expressed by board members.

“As we think of all the students having triggers that allow us to understand things at an early age, it’s going to allow us to eventually curve the dropout rate,” Lewis said. “We haven’t lost sight of the early warning system.”

Leaders from several schools have been meeting with district officials, but it’s not clear which schools will be part of a pilot rollout for the program or when such a pilot program would begin.

In New Orleans, the annual cohort graduation rate — which tracks a class of students over four years — dropped from 77.8 percent in 2018 to 75.4 percent in 2019, mirroring rates across the state. The New Orleans graduation rate has hovered between 72.1 and 77.8 percent for each year since data was available after Hurricane Katrina. (It’s unclear whether this data includes Recovery School District graduation data.) Data from the class of 2020 is not yet available.

Systems like this have been used by public school districts for years and research has shown certain metrics — such as attendance — can help identify struggling students early on, track patterns and identify gaps in services and help reduce the time educators spend analyzing data. 

“That’s the thing that we are trying to address in the early warning system because attendance is a trigger to say that a kid may drop out of school,” he said. “As we move forward we will be able to have attendance at our fingertips.”

Attendance has been problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic, with thousands of students chronically absent and even Mayor LaToya Cantrell calling for community support to help students get to school — whether in-person or virtual. For the first time ever, the district began collecting attendance data from its charter schools last fall — a process some school leaders found onerous and that has continued to evolve to include new data throughout the school year. 

While most early warning systems focus on attendance, behavior and courses, some systems also incorporate a variety of other factors, such as family income status and whether the student has interacted with the juvenile justice system. Other systems include school characteristics, such as whether the school has a high or low graduation rate overall. The district and schools will have to determine those metrics.

“This student may have five triggers that indicate he or she is going to drop out,” Lewis said. 

That in turn, he said, would be relayed to the school, so educators can intervene. Interventions include a range of help such as providing tutoring, enrolling the student in a credit recovery program after failing a course, or assigning a mentor to the student.

Developing the program

Last month, spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district was in the “developing stages of the program” and was building “a steering committee of stakeholders to help design the system’s indicators.”

“We’re still working on being able to develop an early warning system,” Lewis told the board last week. “Again it comes down to funding.”

Leaders at Warren Easton Charter High School and Educators for Quality Alternatives — which runs four alternative high schools including The NET — have attended district-led meetings to discuss the proposed system in recent weeks. 

EQA’s Chief Operating Officer Shane Colman said the group is very excited to be part of the pilot process. Colman has worked for the organization since 2012, beginning as a teacher at The NET: Central City. 

“Since then I’ve pretty much taught every subject, and handled plumbing toilets to state data reporting,” Colman said. “Out of all the different hats that I wear I am most passionate and interested about the data side.”

EQA now operates four schools, recently taking over New Orleans Accelerated High School, which had previously been run by ReNEW Schools.

“In the past two years we’ve expanded, we now have four schools, and I’m excited to take all that data and make it visual and actionable and get to that place of predictors,” he said. 

Colman has worked to build systems within EQA that help students take ownership of their studies, such as making all Individual Graduation Plans online and accessible to each individual students at anytime rather than locked away in a filing cabinet. Colman says the more schools that participate the more everyone can learn. 

“When NOLA-PS reached out about this I was like ‘oh this is great! It aligns with this organization and will have the backing of Hoonuit’,” he said. Hoonuit, an education data analytics platform, was recently acquired by PowerSchool, a student management system used by many New Orleans schools. 

“My understanding is the goal is being able to identify students who are at risk of dropping out as early as possible. Obviously we run high schools … my understanding is the end goal of this early warning system is so we could start identifying the students in middle school,” Colman said. “What are the data points that we are seeing that will inevitably have a higher risk of a student being unsuccessful in completely high school?”

During the pandemic, the district has increased its focus on middle school interventions and ensuring middle school students who are struggling make it to high school. 

“So obviously at EQA that’s our MO,” he said. “Getting students back in school and getting them across the finish line.”

The more longitudinal data they have, the better schools and the district can track which metrics are the best predictors of future outcomes, such as on-time graduation. 

“We know once a kid has their second child their chance of graduating is much much lower,” Colman said.

In particular, research has shown that ninth grade course performance can be a strong indicator of graduation.

‘Snowball effect’

At Warren Easton, Principal Mervin Jackson said the school hopes to participate in the pilot program as well. 

“It would give us an additional layer of tracking students, from attendance to grades,” Jackson said, noting the new system would tie into their current student management software. “It will make it easier — housing everything under one umbrella.”

For Jackson, attendance is the biggest predictor of school success. 

“Mainly if the kids aren’t in school that’s just a snowball effect to other things, from grades to not having the credits to graduate,” Jackson said. “You want to catch it early so you can put in interventions in place.”

The school currently puts interventions into place based on its own student data, Jackson said. For example, students with lots of absences are seen by a social worker. 

“We start with the social worker doing an analysis on a case by case basis,” Jackson said. “They may need (special education) services or other staff services.”

But a new highly developed system could help make tracking data easier, he said.

“I think it’s going to be a great tool because it puts everything under one umbrella.”

Meanwhile in Central City, Colman looks forward to sharing what he’s learned in developing and tracking data at The NET with other leaders. 

“I would one, love to share those practices, and also learn from other schools because at the end of the day we’re serving all the kids in the city,” he said.

“The more successful we can be at other schools the more we win, the more they win, the more everybody wins,” he said. “The fact that this is a concerted effort across schools really excites me the most here.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...