Why Data Matters: Deep digging paves direct path to deeper needs

Why Data Matters: Deep digging paves direct path to deeper needs

By Tyler Dahlgren

For school leaders, a deep examination of data can be a revealing and downright daunting experience. In the midst of a global pandemic, you’re safe to underline the latter part of that statement--maybe even twice.

Immersing one’s self in data is exhausting yet worthwhile. Intimidating yet necessary. Participants in ESU 17’s Data Dig last Monday are certain the proof will come in the pay-off, just as it has for years, though the format for 2021’s workshop looked slightly different.

A hybrid in-person/virtual model with service unit staff members on site at their five districts to facilitate the conversations and work being coordinated by ESU 17 Staff Development Director Jeff McQuistan from central headquarters in Ainsworth, the Data Dig still produced the same results.

Data, and a deep dive into it.

“Data can be daunting for us all, and there was a lot of it,” said Dale Hafer, Superintendent at Ainsworth Community Schools. “It’s one thing to look at data, but it’s another to really get in the weeds and have the tough conversations that come from it.”

That was the day’s goal for McQuistan and the rest of the ESU 17 staff, to help districts in identifying needs in order to assist them moving forward. With members of the ESU on hand to coordinate conversations, district administrators and teachers were able to fully participate in the day’s activities.

“Everyone had an equal voice and an equal opportunity to participate in the conversation without worrying about the facilitation aspect,” McQuistan said.

For first-year superintendent Mike Halley, who took over at Valentine after 11 years as principal of Scottsbluff High School, the Data Dig was a big step towards identifying and addressing his district’s most pressing needs.

“This being my first year here in Valentine, I’ve heard a lot of things since I’ve been here that people feel we need to get done, but it’s all been on kind of a superficial level,” Halley explained. “The activities that Jeff had us do really allowed us to dig deep and get down to what we truly need to be exploring and what we need to do to improve and help our students. It was very worthwhile for us.”

Ultimately, that’s what the Data Dig is all about. Actualizing and implementing practices that make the student experience a better one. ESU 17 organized Google Sites for each district to work off of. The organization, remarked Hafer, was excellent, making the Data Dig even more of a productive venture. Halley agreed.

Also connected virtually were team members from NeMTSS and ESU 17’s MTSS coordinator Misty Wroblewski, who was stationed at Ainsworth for the day. Multi-tiered systems of support, Halley said, are relied on heavily to remedy many of the needs identified during data dives that often reveal needs in the area of mental health. In fact, data-based decision-making is one of the six essential elements that NeMTSS bases its work on.

“Data is an extremely important part of the work that we do,” said NeMTSS regional support lead Claudine Kennicutt, who partners with not only ESU 17, but ESUs 9,10 and 11, too. “You see a variety of different districts and their ability to dive into the data, their willingness to do it and their understanding of data. ESU 17 is a great example of a service unit that partners well with their districts.”

It’s not an easy thing to do, Kennicutt added. Being honest when assessing data can be unnerving.

“You have to be willing to accept the results that you see and then make the appropriate changes to improve instruction for kids,” said Kennicutt, who too was impressed with how the day flowed. “I know how many computer screens Jeff had up and running that day. He did a phenomenal job of putting all of that together. It shows the partnerships ESU 17 has with their districts that they were able to have a representative at every location.”

ESU 17 is unique in that it serves only five districts: Ainsworth, Valentine, Cody-Kilgore, Keya Paha County and Rock County. Because of that, relationships are as strong (Erickson even baked homemade and universally-praised cinnamon rolls for each gathering site) and collaboration is essential.

“We’re proud to work with the group of schools that we do and the group of superintendents we do,” ESU 17 Special Education Director and Administrator Geraldine Erickson said before noting that the five superintendents the service unit works with are relatively new to the area. “It’s a new group, and I feel like the support that they have had from each other throughout all of the decisions we’ve had to make over the last year has been valuable. Not just to them, but to us too.”

With how unique a year it’s been for everyone, this year’s Data Dig didn’t come without a few twists. Because state tests were wiped out by the pandemic closures last spring, those scores weren’t configured into the data on hand. This caused organizers to look more closely at other areas of data during the planning process.

“That’s when MTSS really provided an opportunity to look beyond test scores at the whole child,” McQuistan said. “What we heard from our superintendents is that the conversations they had this year were probably even more insightful and more inspiring than what they had previously when it was just about the test scores. That was a meaningful aspect of it.”

Educating, even 11 months into a world-altering pandemic, has always been about moving forward. Staying the course, as Hafer put it. That’s why it was important, perhaps more than ever, for the schools involved to set aside five hours on a Monday for professional development.

“We have a very highly-committed group when it comes to the continuous improvement process and blending that with MTSS, and we made a decision in the beginning of this pandemic that we were not going to let COVID-19 get in the way of us moving forward,” said Hafer. “If there was a way that we could do things, we were going to do it. And I know I learn something new every time we get together for the Data Dig and that my staff sees the value in it, too.”

Halley, who sent administrators from each building in Valentine along with counselors and teachers to the virtual workshop, found the cross collaboration provided to be massively beneficial. It’s not every day a high school principal can have a meaningful conversation with a middle school science teacher, but maybe it should be.

Data has a way of opening eyes to new perspectives.

“It allowed the high school staff to see some of the perspectives of the elementary and middle school staff,” Halley said. “Having that whole group together was a very positive experience. We’re already gaining ground and moving forward because of it.”

Onward, into the endless world of data on a never-ending quest for school improvement.

Forward is the only direction this group knows how to go.