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Harnessing Data for Equity and Success: Insights from Marlborough Public Schools

Success Stories, Video

A Conversation with Jody O’Brien

During the 2023 Otus Regional Workshop at Marlborough Public Schools, an event offering hands-on learning and professional development for educators using Otus, we had the opportunity to speak with Jody O’Brien, Assistant Superintendent for Student Services and Equity. These workshops, led by Otus Client Experience Partners, equip educators to leverage Otus for enhanced student learning and informed decision-making. In our discussion with Jody, we delve deep into how the school is utilizing data to enhance student success and promote equity.

Unpacking the Benefits of Student Data Tools: Three Key Insights

Harnessing Data to Drive Equity and Achievement

As school districts face the complexities of serving diverse student populations, the need for precise tools to identify patterns, trends, and barriers becomes paramount, especially when catering to families for whom English is a second language. By leveraging robust student data tools like Otus, Marlborough Public Schools can monitor important metrics like the proficiency of English learners. Otus combines student data from every source, providing comprehensive visual representations that aid in decision-making. These insights ensure every student’s needs are met and disparities are addressed.

“From an equity standpoint, I’m able to drill down and talk with administrators about any patterns, like, if there are higher percentages of special education students or students with low income who are also chronically absent. That’s easy to look at within the Otus dashboard.”

Addressing Chronic Absenteeism – A Renewed Priority in the Post-COVID Era

Post-COVID, chronic absenteeism has become an escalating challenge for many districts. Marlborough Public Schools, equipped with data tools like Otus, can swiftly identify students at risk of becoming chronically absent, especially during pivotal early stages of the academic year. Using this timely information, the school can intervene, potentially unveiling underlying patterns or disparities among high-risk groups and ensuring every student has an equal opportunity at education.

“If the students aren’t here, then they can’t work.”

Turning Data into District-Wide Decisions

Marlborough Public Schools initially tapped into Otus for insights into student performance. But it’s not just about metrics—it’s about understanding the stories behind them. Whether tracking the progress of English learners transitioning to mainstream English classes or aiming for other district-level objectives, tools like Otus offer more than numbers. They provide clarity and aid in informed decision-making, ensuring comprehensive support for every student’s journey to success.

“For the equity piece, we are having ongoing conversations to drill down into what the barriers are. The barrier might be that the student has to work during the day to be able to support their family. So then the  plan might be to have a service coordinator work with the family on getting the resources they need.”

For Otus Query reports enable Marlborough Public Schools to look across their data to locate students who are chronically absent. They can then drill down to better understand the demographic makeup of those students and engage in a solutions-oriented dialogue to plan for next steps.

Interview Transcript

Kendell Hunter 

Jody, would you mind just starting off by introducing yourself, sharing more about your role, your district? 

Jody O’Brien 

Sure. So, Jody O’Brien, I’m Assistant Superintendent for Student Services and Equity from Marlborough Public Schools. I just finished my sixth year in the district. Our district is medium size. We have a little over five thousand students enrolled. A very, very high population of families and students that English is their second language. For a little over maybe sixty percent of our families, English is a second language to the home. So we have a lot of EL students as well as special education students that might be dual-identified. So, I oversee special education, English language learners, nursing, counseling, McKinney-Venta Homeless and foster. So, a lot of the high-risk groups that are in our district, so I need to be able to monitor the data and be able to look at any patterns and trends and any barriers that they may have as far as being able to have equitable access to education.

Kendell Hunter

Absolutely. Well, we’re excited to have this conversation with you and to learn with you here. Jody, when did Otus come into the picture for Marlborough?

Jody O’Brien

It was around my first year. So about six years ago, we were talking about having a data dashboard. So it’s been about five years or so that we’ve had Otus. The first couple of years, it’s been embraced at the elementary level. The teachers have been able to use that within their professional learning communities to be able to look at data for their grade levels to be able to pinpoint students that might need tier two or three interventions.

It’s been a little bit more difficult at the secondary level for the two schools to be able to use it. There’s a lot going on. So today for our training that we’re doing with Otus, my goal is to be able to have administrators really be able to build those reports, to use friendly reports that you have, and build those ahead of time, to be able to use for the school year. I think that will be more helpful for them to be able to have the time to be able to, together as a group, to be able to do those.

But I found that the data dashboard is great because it’s taking the information from Aspen, which is our student information system, along with, other data. So our student benchmark data, we use, NWEA, look at attendance, and working on discipline as well. But there’s MCAS data. You can put in SAT scores. And so, you can get all these different data sources and have it in one spot. But I really, really love the graphics, so you get the bar graphs, and the pie charts, and you’re able to really visually see the different subgroups such as special NBL.

Kendell Hunter

What types of questions do you find that you have or other administrators have as they’re looking at those ports and kind of seeing all this data in one place. Is it sparking deeper conversation, wonderings? What does that kind of look like at the building or district level? 

Jody O’Brien

So I have to be honest that during COVID years, it was definitely on the side burner, and so we’re really just starting to get back into using it as a resource and to be able to have those conversations in the last year or so.

Our focus right now at the district level is chronic absenteeism. And, I know across the state of Massachusetts, that, and I think nationally, chronic absenteeism for students has skyrocketed since COVID.

So that is our emphasis, one of the emphases for us, because if the students aren’t here, then they can’t work. So, building those reports to be able to identify students early on, as far as their absenteeism, but then the components that you have, like the notes section. So when a building-based team looks at a group of students that are heading towards being absent, like, early in September, October, then when they come up with a plan, they could use the notes section in Otus to be able to say, like, what document, what steps are they doing. And then from an equity standpoint, I’m able to drill down and talk with administrators about any patterns, like, if there are higher percentages of special ed students or higher signages of low income, that’s easy to be able to look at within the Otus dashboard.

Kendell Hunter

How were you all doing this before you were using Otus? How were you able to look at these trends?

Jody O’Brien

I don’t think we were. So, you know, from our student information system, you can get a report on how many students have ten or more absences when you get a list of names, but, you know, it comes out in a report. You can get into an Excel spreadsheet.

But up to this point, I don’t think, anybody has really had the time to be able to look at it. But again, I know at the elementary level, the teachers are really using it for that benchmark data and they’ve developed some of their own common assessments that, I think, my, colleague, Ron Sandborn, who’s the director of elementary curriculum pre-k to five, I know he’s really an expert in that area.

Kendell Hunter

It sounds like there are just different focuses based on the grade level of the students, which is nice.

Jody O’Brien

So, I think, there are different features of Otus that meet the needs of the school and the district. So, district-level administrators, I think, are using features of Otus like those historical reports to be able to look at trends at a district level, and not really so much at, like, what the classroom teacher component is doing, but at the school level with the principal and the classroom teacher. They’re using other features of Otus that I’m not as familiar with and vice versa.

Kendell Hunter

That makes perfect sense. There’s kind of a use case for each group depending on their goals. As you’re talking with other administrators here today, at the training? Are you kind of seeing their wheels turning as far as what they can do with the data? 

Jody O’Brien

Yes. There’s some buy-in there.

I think there’s a lot of excitement. I’m like, “Oh my god. I can do this!” So, and I think having that time, like you said, to be able to set aside to actually work in Otus, you should get caught up during the work day.

It’s like you come in and you set aside time to be able to do something, but, you know, within school, there’s always something that comes up. You’re like, oh, by the end of the day, you didn’t get to get to it. So, having that time, I think ahead of time to be able to build those reports and really become familiar and set that up because once you have the built reports, you can just run them throughout the year. 

Kendell Hunter

I know you mentioned from an equity standpoint that you’re really interested in, like, drilling down into the groups. Are you seeing the conversation shift at all as you have this information more accessible to kinda shifting more into like what you’re going to do for students or what’s next? Is that the goal? 

Jody O’Brien

So, our state-level data had showed that our subgroups, our special ed, EL, and other at-risk groups, minority groups, have higher percentages of chronic absenteeism than our our white English speaking. So we just had an administrative leadership meeting yesterday where we spent two hours talking about chronic absenteeism and looking at research on best practices. Relationship development, relationships with the parents, with the student, is a key component to reducing chronic absenteeism, along with a lot of nonpunitive measures.

So we started to talk about that. And then for the equity piece of it is having ongoing conversations to drill down into what the barriers are. You know, the barrier might be that the student has to work during the day to be able to support their family. So that’s where the the game plan might be to be able to have a around service coordinator be able to work with the family on being able to get the resources that they need as an example.

Kendell Hunter

Sounds like you’re definitely putting in place a lot of supports for students to ensure that they’re really getting what they need. So that’s wonderful to hear. You guys are definitely doing good things over over here, Marlboro, for students.

Anything else that you all are focused on this year? You’ve got quite a lot on your plate. What else is going on in the school with you? 

Jody O’Brien

At the elementary level, again, coming out of COVID, you see, you know, across the board, a dip in in student performances.

So I know one of the focuses, also at the classroom level and at the school building level is student performance and targeting those students. So, looking at the progress monitoring data and then coming up with those plans to be able to put interventions in place to close those gaps. And they’ll all be doing that within Otus as well.

Kendell Hunter

That’s great. So they’ll really be going from start to finish with the assessing, analyzing, and then also kind of creating those custom plans to support those needs. Do you foresee that kind of rolling out into the secondary levels or is that primary?

Jody O’Brien

So that’s our goal. That’s my primary goal today, with the Otus training, the full-day training that we’re doing today is, it’s all administrators pretty much that are here. And we have all of the secondary administrators.

So, you know, seeing them work together as a group, and they were just talking about, like, five to eight different reports that they’re thinking of, that they would like to create and then having you guys here to be able to sit down and be able to walk through and build those reports and be hands-on assistance and they do like the little chat feature that you have on there too. So, I have seen, I really appreciate the support and help that you guys have provided ongoing, like, throughout the year. Like anytime we have a question, you know, you guys are right there to be able to answer it. And working with Hillary and ingesting one of the data sources that isn’t part of Otus or it’s new to Otus is disciplined data.

So that’s something we’re working on to be able to bring in and, be able to have, like, how many students have been suspended for five days or more. And that’s a civil rights, piece that we’re required to look at, on a regular basis to make sure that there isn’t any disparity, with consequences with discipline.

Kendell Hunter

Well, it sounds like you definitely are getting the right support to accomplish your goals. 

If you were to meet with another administrator from the region or across the country who’s maybe considering Otus Do you have any advice for them or somebody just getting started? Looking to do what you’re doing?

Jody O’Brien

So, I’ve been promoting it actually all summer. Between some of the different administrative groups that I belong to, there’s special ed, director’s group, and then superintendent’s assistant superintendent. So when we’re having those conversations and asking other districts, “So what are you using or how are you using? How are you able to use your data?” And for districts that don’t have a system in place we say, “Oh, well, you should check this out.” 

Kendell Hunter

Great. Well, thank you. That’s very, very, very nice of you. Now, were you part of the initial Otus launch, like, all the way back in the beginning? 

Jody O’Brien

Yes, a little, right before, like, for me, it was, the first one that I had gone to was, right before COVID. So, in 2019. So I think we were, like, maybe two years into it.

Okay. Before that, I believe our supervisor of math, you know, in supervisor, humanities, humanities that’s looking at the ELA, the reading, and then the elementary principles. I think that was the first push was like that classroom level and how to use it.

And then as that got going, I think then it was like, okay, “Oh, Otus has this feature too. We can use it in this way,” which was, you know, more efficient for, or more useful for district level administrators. 

Kendell Hunter

Sounds like it was like a slow and methodical approach to kind of, you know, I think the implementation of any product or any resource or tool, it’s kind of like that. 

Jody O’Brien

It’s like you have that initial launch, and that phase where you get the people really excited about it. And then it’s like, oh, here’s all this other stuff that you can do with it. 

Kendell Hunter

Well, we’re definitely excited to follow along this year as you all are supporting students. And I know just from hearing you in there today, you’ve definitely got a lot of data at your disposal to use to, you know, help map out the best path. 

Jody O’Brien

Yeah. Thank you.

Kendell Hunter

Yeah, we appreciate you sitting down with us, sharing more, and hosting us as well. So thank you.