The Commercial Appeal, Local News, June 3, 2015
By Jane Roberts
Almost every week during the school year, Memphis Athletic Ministries receives mini report cards for its kids. That means Rod Moses, community director, knows exactly who missed school, who’s having conduct issues and who needs help with reading.
And that has made all the difference, he says.
“We don’t have to wait until the next (quarterly) report card comes out. We can hold little Johnny accountable in between times and have a better expectation of what the next report card will look like.”
The effort is coordinated through Seeding Success, a nonprofit that acts as an aggregator, sharing student data with after-school programs and social agencies that have agreed to tailor their efforts to school district goals.
Two years after Seeding’s start, it is one of six national affiliates sharing a $15 million grant designed to deepen the partnerships and use of data. Each program will receive $600,000 to $700,000 over three years.
“We don’t want to use data to point fingers or crown winners, but to look at how we all serve kids,” said Mark Sturgis, executive director.
Seeding is the locally branded affiliate of StriveTogether, a network of 60 communities in 32 states working with partners to improve a community’s education level and college-going rate. The grant is part of Strive’s Cradle to Career Accelerator Fund backed by philanthropists, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Target.
“We picked communities in the best position to advance,” said Jeff Edmondson, founder and managing director of StriveTogether. “One of the characteristics Seeding Success has embodied is a deep commitment to using data at the program level to begin to identify the bright spots of what is really working for kids and trying to build on them.”
In January, Seeding folded its operations under PeopleFirst, part of the public-private initiatives under Memphis Fast Forward for improving the city’s education and employment outlook.
“I see them helping organizations look a their data and really create their strategies around that data,” said Barbara Prescott, head of PeopleFirst.
This summer and last, Memphis Athletic Ministries and a half-dozen other enrichment programs signed up through Seeding to use reading lessons developed by Literacy Mid-South. By tracing students’ grades in reading from the end of school to the start of the next year, Seeding can see which summer programs are adding value and how.
“We also are looking for the first time at things like attendance in prekindergarten as an indicator of kindergarten readiness,” Sturgis said. “If we can understand from the baseline data what skills are needing support, then the current teacher and community partners can actually target their efforts around specific skills.”
Until MAM agreed to share data with Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District, it had no way of knowing if participants were missing school.
“If they haven’t been to school, that’s really big for us,” Moses said. “If they don’t go to school, they can’t come to the gym unless it’s a situation a kid can’t control.”
But when kids miss four or five days — a warning sign for academic achievement — MAM’s site coordinators “use their relational and conversational” skills to find out “if something is going on in the home we need to know about,” he said.
Because the student data is classified, parents must give programs permission to receive it. Then only employees trained in its use are allowed access. MAM, for instance has nearly 90 employees, but only about 10 have received the data training.
If Seeding could help it train more, MAM could serve more students, Moses said.
Kevin Dean, executive director of Literacy Mid-South, says the paradigm change is essential to nonprofit’s longevity.
“If you can show that what you are doing is improving student attendance or show that reading is improving higher than the norm, that is great for funding, that is great for peace of mind. People are able to collaborate more. If you (as a nonprofit) are not collaborating, you are not going to survive.”