“Before we review the data dashboard, I have three questions: what changed in the last month that surprised you or alarmed you? If something alarmed you, what is your leadership team doing to address the issue? How can the board support you?”

For the past nine years, at noon of the second Tuesday of each month, those questions are how I kicked off the Academic Committee call for Center City Public Charter Schools. Members of the committee changed, and different school staff joined us from time to time, but the questions and conversations remained the same. These three questions guided Center City staff and board members through the adoption and launch of a high-quality curriculum in August of 2014; a transition to the multi-state PARCC assessment also in 2014; and most recently, the turbulent COVID-19 pandemic year of distance learning.

How did we get to these questions and what grounded our conversations? At the start of my tenure with the board, board members and staff worked in partnership for almost a full year to get the right “grain size” of information and metrics about academic performance, student enrollment and re-enrollment, disciplinary action, and teacher retention that we could track over time. With a concise dashboard, we had a common data language and could get to probing questions quickly. We could also make time for the successes and challenges that aren’t captured by numbers like a student winning a local essay contest or a principal winning national recognition for her leadership. Our data dashboard was a point of pride for board members and staff alike.

A clear presentation of data informed our conversations and decisions. Anchoring the conversation to three questions often led the board in unexpected places. For example, a dip in attendance and chronic tardiness at one school led a conversation about students who were experiencing homelessness and how we could marshal financial resources to help make getting to school and showing up ready to learn easier for our students. When we learned that tardiness and chronic truancy was often linked to food insecurity, we doubled down on our board and staff commitment to make sure all children and their families in the Center City network had access to fresh vegetables and fruits through multiple community partnerships.

We noticed a drop in re-enrollment at certain campuses which led to conversations with students and families about “what’s missing and what would make them stay?” We then embarked on an effort to add enrichment activities like theater, sports, music, science clubs and we eventually invested in buses to take students to and from extracurricular events and opportunities.

Our most lively conversations were about academic outcomes, the meaning behind test results, and approaches to intervention. This is where the personal and professional collided (in a good way!) As a founding member of the CenterPoint Education Solutions team, the importance of high expectations for all students and assessment literacy for educators drive me. I believe deeply that ALL students should have access to rigorous instruction and that ALL educators should have a sound understanding of students’ specific needs to plan, staff, structure, and resource toward accelerating learning. On this topic, the Academic Committee met with the Finance Committee annually to make sure we were setting aside the appropriate resources for interventions, additional coaches, or professional learning for our educators.

In 2016, we realized that while we were seeing growth, we were not getting the larger academic gains that we expected. These discussions led to a shift into high-quality and more challenging curriculum, in this case, Great Minds’ Wit & Wisdom for English/Language Arts and Eureka for mathematics. These two programs, coupled with intensive professional learning, were the right tools for our teachers and leaders to drive stronger achievement. The board dedicated our annual retreat in Fall of 2017 to a deep dive on the curriculum, which gave us the perfect opportunity to see our teachers in action.

I am leaving the board in great hands and will continue to support the students of Center City, the DC charter community, and charter schools around the country. The COVID-19 pandemic brought both hardship and opportunities for innovation. When schools restart in person this fall, educators and school leaders will need to quickly identify where students are. They will need a combination of diagnostic (to pinpoint strengths and gaps to guide instruction), formative (given during instruction to gauge understanding), and interim (periodic tests to check progress toward end-of-year goals) assessments to make these determinations – and plan for next steps. But selecting assessments is only a piece of the puzzle. The resulting data about student learning must be analyzed with accuracy, and dynamic plans for instruction, including where and how to integrate technology, must be identified, and implemented.

Basically, school leaders, board members, and education advocates should be asking their own version of three questions: what changed that surprised you or alarmed you? If something alarmed you, what is your leadership team doing to address the issue? How can the education community support you?”

While I am sad to leave, I have confidence in the extraordinary and award-winning teachers and principals and leaders at Center City. And my hope is sustained by the amazing students I met at science fairs, capstone events, and other school events. They and the school have a bright future ahead.

Margaret Horn is the Chief of Development and Partnerships for CenterPoint Education Solutions. CenterPoint is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting schools and districts in implementing coherent instructional models consisting of high-quality curriculum, tightly aligned assessments, and professional learning.