NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens) Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

The NOLA Public Schools district is launching a so-called “early warning system” that is designed to use student attendance data to warn school leaders when students are in jeopardy of not qualifying for graduation. 

But the project does more than just alert school leaders to metrics they already have access to — it will also make it available to district officials in a centralized database. 

Because the NOLA Public Schools district is made up entirely of independent charter schools, the district central office has less access to student academic information than leadership in a traditional, top-down school district.

The district’s roughly 80 independent charter schools are required to submit various reports to the central office, such as quarterly financials, but they are fairly limited. Other than those reports and a visit or two each year, charters operate with a great deal of autonomy. However, as local education agencies, or LEAs, they are still required to submit data on attendance, suspensions and more to the state each year — which the district does not have immediate access to.

The project has been in the works for over a year. District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the pilot project kicked off last week with a handful of schools and is in its early stages of development through a private contractor: Washington, D.C.-based Crocus, LLC. 

“The District and the pilot school organizations – KIPP, Crescent City Schools, and Encore – will use these data to improve attendance monitoring and intervention programs and to provide the District with feedback regarding the system’s impact on student engagement and achievement,” she wrote.

“NOLA-PS selected Crocus LLC to assist with the initial buildout of the early warning system, focusing on attendance as an indicator of students facing challenges to graduation,” Alfonzo wrote.

Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok said her staff are part of a working group that meets with the developers and district. She said the system should eventually make it easier for the district to access data individual charter schools already report to the state. 

“Most of where we’re starting from is stuff that we already report to the state, but is cumbersome to gather,” Mehok explained. “It is difficult for NOLA-PS to get that data — they have to ask for it from each of their LEAs.”

For the first time in history, the decentralized district began tracking charter school students’ attendance during the pandemic, requiring schools to report weekly attendance rates. Attendance rates varied widely at the beginning of virtual school last school year and continued throughout the year.

But that meant another report charter schools had to produce each week. The district stopped that practice last spring. 

Lower attendance rates permeated through the pandemic to the current school year as well. Several school leaders reported lower-than-average annual attendance in December, which was prior to the surge of the omicron variant, when average attendance rates dropped even further.

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. 

The district received a $350,000 grant from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation to create the system.

“This is just the first phase of the project, and we expect to continue to build the infrastructure incrementally with the end goal of developing an early warning system that schools can use to better ensure students have the support they need to graduate,” Alfonzo wrote.

The streamlining of systems is already happening at the state level, Mehok said. Crescent City Schools’ “student information system,” which tracks students’ attendance, grades, courses and more, is now linked directly to the state’s system. 

In theory, the charter group won’t have to make the official bi-annual attendance reports to the state any longer, but the state is working closely with schools this year because they may enter data into that system on varying schedules. 

Mehok envisions the district’s system as something similar, allowing the district to track real-time data — from attendance to suspensions to the number of students with disabilities and more.

“Just like sometimes it’s helpful to look at data from all of my schools and look for trends, I imagine it would be helpful for the district to be able to look at the data from all its schools,” she said, noting the board could help intervene if they see problematic trends in district schools. “Or celebrate it — maybe some schools are being really successful in things and we can highlight what they’re doing and learn from them.”

Through the last two years, Orleans Parish School Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. has encouraged district leaders to collect more school-level datal. There were times he criticized the district for not having information like attendance and course data, readily available. Much of that information is tracked at the school level and not at the district.

Marshall said in theory the system will allow the district to track more than just attendance in real-time.

“They’re tracking programing, finances and all of those things,” Marshall said in an interview. “I want to see a system where we have access to everything that is being done, so we can see best practices and build best practices.”

It appears the program will start with attendance but can expand as the district’s contractor builds out the program to integrate with charter school student information systems and other internal programs.

“This is the tip of what I’m asking for, but it’s a good start,” Marshall said.

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...