Team Somerville stepped foot in Somerville on February 1, 2015. Here is our story.
“Be abnormal and untethered.”
These were the words of advice from Mayor Joseph Curtatone. It was our first day of February Residency and we were snowed in. Despite having two Chicagoans on Team Somerville, we were not quite prepared for Boston’s frigid welcome. When our city partners - Stephanie Hirsch and Denise Taylor - arrived at our door, with a spare pair of boots to rescue what they called “LA slippers”, we half expected they would come with skis.
While many of our scheduled meetings were cancelled due to the State, City and school closures, the eventual record-breaking winter blizzards were blessings in disguise. We adapted and, in many ways, bonded over the shared new experiences: February Fellowship and the #BOSnow storm.
With State and City offices closed, we met our key partners in more impromptu and casual settings: at their homes and at cafes. Stephanie opened her home as our temporary meeting space and, while her four children played inside on their snow day home, we shared our visions for the Fellowship, specifically around the much-spoken “Integrated Data System”. Using her children’s crayons and markers, we drew drawings of what the “Integrated Data System” vision was: students, data, and insights. Even little Joey, Stephanie’s youngest child, joined in with his Big Hero Beymax drawings.
We also soon discovered that Stephanie’s home was a revolving door for neighborhood folks who stopped by to simply say hi or to drop off their child for a play date. We immediately saw through these interactions how close-knit a community Somerville is with neighbors opening doors to each other when in need.
As a Team of Three, we also had to quickly calibrate with each other's daily schedules and habits. We had been primed to prepare for the possibility that residency might mirror “Real World”, living and working 24/7 with now roommates/teammates who only a month ago were strangers. Our “reality” however was much more like Golden Girls. We spent afternoons working from our kitchen table, out of the local Diesel Cafe, or at our Cummings School office. For lunch, we tried out new local restaurants or ate our packed PB&J sandwiches. In the evenings, tea-briefs, home-cooked greens, and board games became our daily rituals. From our morning standups to our evening tea-briefs, for the 28 days of residency, we had each other to lean on, learn from, and laugh with.
It was not all snowflakes and apple spice tea though. There were inevitable emotional and practical setbacks to not being able to do what we planned on doing: cancellations, postponements, and closures compounded with each inch of snow. But by the end of our February residency, we had shoveled our way through the figurative and literal 64.8 total inches and had met over 50 stakeholders at the State, City, and schools.
We spoke with Vince McKay, Assistant Superintendent of Somerville Public Schools, and Uri Harel, Elementary Curriculum Coordinator, and learned how teachers need a way to better connect disparate data sources together in order to help them monitor student learning and support their instruction. The urgency of tapping into these data was described not simply as a way to mine numbers but to meet individual student needs: “Let’s not collect data and sit on it for months but rapidly respond to what students need and re-teach” (Uri Harel). We heard stories from Regina Bertholdo, Director of the Parent Information Center (PIC), on how the PIC is not only the “octopus” that helps families connect with school and social services but is the helping hand that teaches families how to be empowered and advocate for themselves. We learned how Fernanda Villa DaSilva, Director of the Parent-Child Home Program, visits laundromats, playgrounds, and churches to find families who would benefit from the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative's early childhood services but would otherwise might not know.
What makes Somerville have a strong neighborhood feel is the people - such as Vince, Uri, Regina, and Fernanda - who work to build the bridges between and with the community. Much like the open door at Stephanie's home, Somerville is a city that engages its residents to understand their needs and shares in the responsibilities of building a city that is welcome to all.
Somerville: The All-American City
Somerville is a small yet bustling city with a population of 78,814 within only 4.1 square miles (Census ACS, 2013). With 19,120 people per square mile, Somerville is ranked as one of the most densely populated cities in the country. Experiencing rapid gentrification over the past three decades, Somerville is a melting pot of young and old, local-born and new immigrants, blue-collar families and college students. This diversity is apparent as you walk down the streets from Square to Square. Turn the corner and you will smell the aromas of Brazilian churrasco, Creole goat stew, and Nepalese dal bhat. Sit down at the local cafe and you might overhear conversations about “How can I find childcare?” to “How do I fund my startup?”, spoken in one of the 50+ represented languages.
Awarded the title of All-American City for the third time this year, Somerville has many distinctions to be proud of. Not only is Somerville home to many cultures, it is also a hub of professional diversity with the highest number of analysts per capita in the country and second only to New York in the number of artists per capita. Somerville also benefits from Tufts, Harvard and MIT nearby: “Somerville City Hall attracts the brightest minds and runs like a cross between a startup, a think tank, and a fervent nonprofit.”
Over the past 10 years, Mayor Curtatone has developed Somerville into a beacon of innovation, leading the way for smart government and civic engagement. With programs like SomerStat, ResiStat, SomerPromise, and SomerViva, the City has dedicated itself to understanding the needs of all its residents through culturally inclusive dialogue and data-driven insights. In particular, Mayor Curtatone has led the initiatives to use data in decision-making with the belief that “operating without data is like … driving a car blindfold”.
Primary among Mayor Curtatone’s data initiatives are the SomerStat and ResiStat programs. The SomerStat program supports City departments to use data to inform financial, personnel, and operational decisions towards identifying opportunities to improve City services. The idea behind SomerStat is that “frequent ‘statting’ of city departments via data analysis means that problems as well as opportunities to innovate are continually identified, which ensures that we are constantly looking for better, more innovative answers.”ResiStat is the community-facing arm of SomerStat where city staff and residents can share city data, discuss community issues, and engage in joint problem-solving.
The Mayor’s philosophy that “the more transparent and more accountable we can be with the public, they more engaging they will want to be with us” is evidenced by how he has led the forefront of open data and civic engagement initiatives. Somerville is the first in New England to launch a Socrata-powered Open Data Portal, increasing citizen access to government data including budget expenditures and 311 call center operations. Included is Somerville's Happiness Project, which surveys residents on their happiness and well-being - the first city in the United States to do so. Not only that, the City Data Dashboard, built by Chief of Staff Daniel Hadley, opens the data up as friendly visualizations for residents to interact with.
Somerville and Code for America
Given Somerville’s innovation in using data for governance and civic engagement, it is not surprising that the city's application to the Code for America Fellowship focused on how to tap into and integrate the existing City and school data systems to create tools that will help identify children at risk and ensure critical services are delivered.
In partnership with the City of Somerville, Somerville Public Schools and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we are addressing the question of how to better connect families to services and support they need. A key focus of our work is how to Somerville’s children to learn and thrive, both academically and socio-emotionally, with the support of their school community and family. We are currently focusing on two areas:
In early childhood, we are asking ourselves:
How might the City welcome every new child born in Somerville?
Somerville offers a wealth of resources for families with young children, but many parents don’t know where or how to take advantage of them. How might a “Welcome Basket” help to empower families with access to information and community connections that can better inform decisions about their children’s health and education?
For school-age children, we are asking ourselves:
How might we help teachers to identify students struggling both academically and behaviorally so that students can receive timely and targeted support?
Somerville Public Schools collects demographic, assessment, behavioral, and intervention information on their students but these data are located in disparate systems, making their access and use time-consuming and intensive. How might a tool that integrates multiple student information systems and lets teachers interact with their classroom data help streamline the current workflow so that teachers can spend more time addressing each student's learning?
Increase connections between families & City/school services
How might the City welcoming newborns help families understand what social services are available?
How might this knowledge increase utilization of services such as development screenings, home visits, and playgroups?
Increase access to and use of student data
How might easier access to student data and user-friendly tools help teachers identify student needs and provide timely and targeted interventions?
How might these data tools add value to the collaboration between teachers and student support teams?
How might these data tools help communicate student progress to parents?
As our Lead Designer, Amir has shared the user research and design principles with not only the Team but also our city partners and Somerville communifty. Here are some of his key takeaways.
Learn from People
"When building a thing we should know who we are building for. Learning from the people we are building with will give us the insights we need. By understanding their behaviors, motivations, and frustrations, we can build a thing that better fits their needs."
We spoke to administrators and teachers to understand needs within the school. In particular, we are learning from teachers what painpoints and triumphs they experience when using data to inform instruction. We spoke to parents to understand the frustrations and joys of raising a child, especially around knowing what resources and support are available.
Focus on People
"By keeping our focus on the people we are building with we are better able to meet their needs. Prioritizing ideas and concepts quickly based on their feedback lets us filter down to what is important to them. Letting us build a thing that matches their needs rather than building a thing we imagine matches their needs."
Our project is developed with inspiration and in collaboration with the users: school leaders, teachers, parents, and students. We brainstorm, discuss and prioritize ideas ideas based on continual feedback - via in-person or remote design sessions, conversations, and GitHub issues. (Shout out to Principal Jill Geiser and City Partner Denise Taylor who have been contributing ideas on GitHub!)
What We Learned
"Go learn from people. If you feel like you can’t or aren’t ready yet, it is more than likely just in your head. Early and often is a term used for shipping code but the same can be said about learning from people. They are the ones who know what you should build so go ask and listen."
In conversations with City staff and local parents, we heard that for new families knowing what resources are available and how to access them can be challenging. We heard this sentiment voiced again and again by families from diverse backgrounds, from a teen mother to a long-standing city official: "There are so many great services available in Somerville. Help is out there but you need to know where to look and how to get the help." We started to ask ourselves the question: How might the City of Somerville welcome families with new babies, providing them with information on the social services available such as developmental screenings, home visits and playgroups?
We had heard from our first meeting with our city partners and again throughout our Fellowship, the story of a teenage mother who had given birth to an early-term baby. Discharged by the hospital with advice to seek early intervention services, the mother missed these crucial services as she moved from city to city. By the time her child entered kindergarten, she had developed severe mental and physical delays. One might assume that the mother was complacent in her child’s care. This was not the case. She sensed her child was having difficulties and actively sought help, walking to a nearby school to seek professional advice. Unfortunately, the school was closed for summer break and she left empty-handed. It was only after entering the school system that the teacher identified the child as in need of special education and referred her to get the individualized support she needed.
Compelled to not repeat this story again, our city and school partners investigated the teen mother’s journey to better understand what obstacles she faced, which doors closed, and what opportunities were missed. While the City has a strong network of social service providers including Somerville Public Schools, Somerville Family Learning Collaborative, SomerViva, and the Parent Information Center, we needed to understand how to make sure that all families, especially those isolated from the usual channels of communication, could learn about, connect with, and grab onto the lifeline that they need when they need it.
We set up table at the local grocery store, Market Basket, and at the Healey School Tot Lot to meet Somerville families and ask them what resources they wish they knew about when the child was born. We asked them if they knew who to turn to for support and whether they felt empowered to ask for the help they needed. We also interviewed the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative (SFLC) about the challenges they face when conducting outreach to parents. Lack of contact information for new Somerville parents was ranked as the biggest challenge.
Given this lack of a comprehensive directory of Somerville newborns, we want to test the concept that Somerville could leverage birth records data to locate and welcome new children. In collaboration with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, we hope to get our hands on birth certificates that include contact information for newborn families which SFLC could use to reach a wider net of families than they currently do by word of mouth and canvassing. As Anna Doherty, Director of SomerPromise says, "It’s precisely those first days and weeks when many parents need the most support of all and when long-lasting habits start to form."
The Somerville Public Schools, much like the City of Somerville, has been using data to inform how they support their students in and outside the classroom. For example, teachers and school support staff review their student’s behavior and academic performance records during Assess & Re-Teach and Student Support Team meetings to tweak instructional strategies and to provide additional support.
The value of data is to derive insights that can lead to timely and targeted actions. The challenge faced by Somerville Public Schools is that many of their student data live in different worlds: in local student information systems, in State data systems, and within private enterprise software. Extracting this data requires time and effort not only on the part of administrators and district data analysts, such as Kenya Avant-Ransome, but also by teachers who proactively log into these multiple systems to pull student data to analyze by hand or in Excel.
Currently, Kenya pulls demographic and assessment data from the district’s Aspen X2 student information system, the State’s Edwin Analytics system, and the STAR enterprise local assessment software. She merges these data in MS Access and creates a PDF report, “Student Roster” for each classroom in Somerville’s eleven public schools. The report displays student demographics, assessment and intervention data in a table, categorizing and highlighting students by low, medium and high risk. Teachers receive these report at the beginning and middle of the school years after the main district assessment results are in.
When we spoke to teachers, we heard that while these reports are useful, they arrive at their desks after the start of the school year - not before - reducing the advantage of knowing about their new classroom of students from the first day. Teachers have worked around but pulling their students’ information themselves to be prepared for the first day of school: logging into multiple student data portals, printing out pages of student information, and collating this information for ad-hoc analyses. Teacher have also said how while looking at their student’s data can be insightful, the true insights comes from digging deeper which a static sheet of paper does not let them do.
The challenge with the current roster is, as described by the creator Stephanie Hirsch herself, that the static PDF version is “not replicable, not scalable, errors introduced, not flexible”. And as 5th grade Healey teacher Ellen Isbitz says, the process of doing all the data work yourself "is a disaster".
Collaborating with Healey Teacher Tools
The 5th grade Healey teacher team has been our primary collaborators, first to understand how the teachers currently use data in their everyday instruction and subsequently to co-design a tool that lets them:
See their classroom’s student data
Identify students who are at-risk
Interact with the student data to identify patterns
Dig deeper into context and history
Why did the teachers want to be able to interact and dig deeper with the data? Because they wanted to answer the questions:
What recent or chronic behavioral issues are at play in the student’s learning?
What interventions has the student received and have they been effective in supporting the student’s needs?
If not, how can we better provide students with the targeted and timely support they need in order to thrive in and outside of the classroom?
The Student Insights tool pulls key demographic, behavior and assessment indicators from two different data systems: Aspen X2 and STAR. The tool provides not only simple view for teachers to see which students in their classroom are at-risk but also a way to interact with the data, replacing the current static print-outs.
The student profile module helps answer these questions of “What is my student struggling in? What interventions have or have not worked in the past?” The student profile gives insight into a student, both academically and behaviorally over time.
January 2015: We kicked up this app during Build Week as a warm-up, getting-to-know-you exercise. The initial product idea and subsequent feedback came from Stephanie Hirsch. This app drew from a single set of de-identified sample data from Excel to generate risk levels by homeroom, so it couldn't do anything useful in the wild. We said: "If this demo seems promising to stakeholders and early iterations prove useful, it could grow up over the course of the fellowship year."
February 2015: We met with the fantastic 5th grade teacher team at Healey throughout the month to learn about the challenges they face, see the current tools they use, and sketch paper prototypes together.
March 2015: We started writing and testing functions to import data from Somerville's Student Information System and student assessment sources.
April 2015: We had our first call with Healey teachers and principal to get feedback on a working prototype of the app using real data.
May 2015: We are considering the app an alpha product now. Our focus is on building out the student profile feature and improving the roster view while testing working iterations with our teacher partners at Healey.
June 2015: We are testing the app with more teachers now and building out the student profile features with the help of Code for SF and Code for Boston brigade volunteers.
July 2015: We are planning to soft launch our tool with the summer school teachers. This is a prime opportunity to pilot and test the app (along with a paper version) since teachers will be meeting their summer school students for the first time.
Future: We are planning on building an interventions module that lets teachers assign and track interventions such as tutoring. Currently, there can be "delays up to 9 months to a year but if we have the system, we could fast-track".
Side Projects and Other Fun!
Building a simple searchable map & SMS interface that maps locations and texts information on nearby early childhood care centers in Somerville.
Co-creating with City staff at the City Design Night: learning the human-centered design process and imagining how city services could better serve residents.
Unlocking the power of the Code for America Fellowship & Brigades.
We would like to thank our partners and funders for their support and collaboration throughout our Fellowship.
City of Somerville
Mayor Joseph Curtatone
Denise Taylor, Director of Communications
Daniel Hadley, Chief of Staff
Anna Fox Doherty, Director of SomerPromise
Nomi Davidson, Director of Somerville Family Learning Collaborative
Stephanie Hirsch, Advisor
Somerville Public Schools
Vince McKay, Assistant Superintendent
Uri Harel, Elementary Curriculum Coordinator
Kenya Avant-Ransome, Data Analyst
State of Massachusetts
A special shout out to the Code for Boston and Code for San Francisco brigades for their support, ideation, editing, issue-opening, and pull-requesting in support of this work. Thank you Tyler Field and Chad Iverson for your pull requests, and Cody Morgan for your strategy and writing support!
Summer School Launch
Summer has arrived and summer school is around the corner! Team Somerville is — strangely enough — excited for summer school. Summer school is an ideal opportunity to put the Student Insights tool to the test. Can the student profile help summer school teachers support their new students? This July we will work with the Somerville district leadership to find out.
Welcome Basket Pilot
After research comes action! We are exploring partnerships with the Commonwealth Department of Public Health and the Somerville City Clerk's Office to test the "Welcome Basket" concept on a pilot basis. Our goals: send a first batch of baskets to new Somerville parents to gather their feedback and responses to this new service.
Follow Along — And Contribute!
Does this work sound interesting? If so, please follow along and contribute: