Photo by Jonathan Kozowyk
When Data Really Matters
Arpi Karapetyan, Ed.M.’13, knows that numbers tell a story. She also knows that the distance between students and graduation may be explained by a variety of data points often unrelated to their academic ability.
Homelessness, food insecurity, trauma, past school suspensions, and anxiety are just part of a student’s profile that Karapetyan captures as the data and accountability manager at Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA), a competency-based alternative high school program in the Boston Public Schools, often described as a second-chance school. This information is critical toward understanding why students may have failed their first two years of high school.
“We have kids from different ages and different skill levels, and they’re here for the same reason: Traditional school did not work for them,” Karapetyan says. “All these factors matter and we need to create supports in response to them.”
In her role for the past five years, Karapetyan helped customize the school’s database, which will soon be available to others nationwide. Cocreated with a former colleague, the database allows administrators to capture data that is particularly relevant when serving challenged populations of students, many of whom enroll at BDEA after unsuccessful starts in traditional district high schools or local charter schools. If a student is homeless or suffering from the effects of depression, anxiety, or trauma, these factors are captured in Karapetyan’s database, so the administration, in conjunction with a student support team, can formulate an individualized education plan — a supportive road map toward stability, academic competency, and, if all goes well, graduation.
“When I talk about risk factors, we do incidence reporting through our system, but we also are tracking positive behaviors and relationships outside the building,” says Karapetyan making note of the 10 percent of students who have children of their own or the 23 percent who have had an incarcerated parent.
“The other big piece of this data work is intervention,” she says. “It’s not just what are your risk factors; it’s also, ‘Is what we’re doing working for you?’, so we can flag if they are not progressing under their current individualized education plan. Then we try something else.”
As an in-district charter school, BDEA has the autonomy to operate differently from traditional district schools. They offer two start times (9 a.m. and 10 a.m.) to accommodate students raising children, caring for sick family members, working late shifts, or traveling far from temporary housing. The age range of the student body runs from 16 to 23, with nearly 30 percent identified as students with disabilities. Nearly 10 percent are English language learners. In addition, more than 70 percent are identified as high needs, nearly 60 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 15 percent are homeless at any given time.
Karapetyan and her colleagues are all too aware of the uphill path most of their students face, particularly young men of color. A recent review of the school’s data by UCLA showed that being a female student at BDEA increases one’s chances of graduating by 14 times.
“Male students, particularly those who have been unsuccessful at other high school models, have a hard time graduating,” Karapetyan says. In response, the school created a well-attended afterschool men’s group, along with other support groups for young women and students dealing with grief, and a gay– straight alliance.
The capture of the risk factor data is part of a comprehensive intake process that also involves determining how far a student is from graduation based on the number of course credits they arrive with, and every student is placed into classes based on their competency level as determined by pre-enrollment testing. Even within classes, though, there are variations on the competency levels, making the practice of delivering differentiated instruction to each learner an essential part of daily instruction.
“You need this kind of [data] system to do this work,” Karapetyan says, “and it means a student doesn’t have to start over if they didn’t finish a class here and they have to take it again the next trimester. We will assess them and then place them in class based on competency.”
And not starting over, Karapetyan says, is essential to providing at-risk students with a level of security in knowing past efforts count toward graduation.
“What we are doing is not that complex, but it seems logical,” Karapetyan says. “I feel fortunate to have been able to do this work.”
Mary Tamer spends her days contemplating the quandaries of communications and education policy. She is a longtime contributor to Ed.