The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Learning a New Way The Network for College Success harnesses data, trust, and leadership to improve Chicago high schools.

The most infamous myth in public policy is the magic bullet. Talk with anybody about how we can do a better job of treating or managing an issue—any issue—and sooner or later they’re likely to ruefully acknowledge that we must understand there is no one magic bullet to solve the problem.

Carl Vogel



The Network for College Success works with nearly a dozen Chicago public high schools to improve students’ academic performance and being admitted to, and performing well in, college. Instead of an ideological, one-size-fits-all formula, NCS—a partnership between SSA and the Chicago Public Schools—believes strongly in one-on-one coaching, data-driven decisions, professional learning communities, distributed leadership, evidence-based practice, trust, structure, and open communication—all working together and customized to fit each school’s unique situation. Basing its approach on insights from Melissa Roderick’s extensive research on Chicago high schools and her relationships with CPS, the Network has had success in working with schools both large and small. Melissa Roderick is the Hermon Dunlap Professor at the School of Social Service Administration.

Published in the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine

But while the idea of a single solution may be widely dismissed in theory, it’s a myth for a reason. Often the reality is that policymakers and pundits have just enough attention to really get behind one big idea. Nowhere is this more true than in urban education, where reformers have advocated for one cure after the next: charter schools, smaller schools, smaller classrooms, performance- based compensation, high-stakes testing, new curriculum, new leadership, new teachers. The underlying idea is always, “This will fix our schools.”

The people at the Network for College Success know there is no magic bullet for the high schools that they partner with, and it shows. Instead of an ideological, one-size-fits-all formula, NCS—a partnership between SSA and the Chicago Public Schools—believes strongly in one-on-one coaching, data-driven decisions, professional learning communities, distributed leadership, evidence-based practice, trust, structure, and open communication— all working together and customized to fit each school’s unique situation.

“Nothing quite like this has been done before,” says network founder Melissa Roderick, SSA’s Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor. “When some principals came to me and asked how we could make a closer link between their practice and what we found in research, we said we didn’t have some package to sell, some ‘answer’ that could just be applied. We were going to have to figure it out together.”

That was five years ago, and the basic structure of NCS was set: Principals from about a dozen diverse Chicago Public high schools meet regularly to talk about specific goals in school improvement, with an emphasis on instructional leadership and teacher supervision and development. Roderick and her colleagues provide insight from her research and other findings from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, as well as real-time data from CPS, to guide decisions. Network coaches work closely with key personnel at the schools to help it all come together.

Since then, the network has expanded to include counselors, teachers and other school administrators and added focus on specific topics like building in-school leadership teams, helping students find the right match for college, and keeping freshmen academically on track. But the basic formula has stayed the same. In a school system where only roughly half of the incoming freshmen will graduate, the results have been extraordinary.

Recognizing the potential impact of the NCS professional community, CPS consolidated all the network schools into one “area,” the district’s organizational unit, in 2009. By the end of that school year, NCS-Area 21 schools had the highest 9th grade on-track rate of the traditional high school areas and showed the greatest improvement from the previous year. NCS-Area 21 schools ranked first in growth of scores from the 9th to 10th grade state assessment, increased college scholarships earned by its graduates from $16 million to nearly $25 million, and led the district in increases in college enrollment, four-year college enrollment and selective college enrollment.

“What makes the network different is they have a very sharp focus and go into their partnerships with a real sense of purpose of what they want to accomplish,” says Allan Alson, the former superintendent at Evanston Township High School and an education consultant who serves as a member of the network’s advisory committee. “They’ve been successful and have established real staying power in keeping results moving forward.”

Kevin Salkas (left), the assistant dean for admissions at St. Olaf College, talks to high school seniors Yusef Hood and Alberta Naykene at the ACM Senior Exchange, a NCS college fair held with the Associated Colleges of the Midwest.

The Network for College Success doesn’t have a magic bullet, but it does have a rare philosophy that’s at the center of everything they do: pay close attention to both numbers and to people. The former is present in the data and research they use to guide decisions and measure results; the latter in relying on the school personnel to learn from and trust each other. The network doesn’t just incorporate both these strategies; it weaves them together.

Roderick’s research includes groundbreaking studies on how freshman academic performance is a telling indicator of drop-out rates and the Consortium’s report “From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College,” which outlines the often hidden barriers for low-income high school graduates to attend college. “When policies and programs are being discussed in education, researchers are missing from the table,” she says. “One of our goals with the network is to help move all this important research into the field.”

Roderick also has a long relationship with the Chicago Public Schools, including serving as the CPS director for planning and development for several years. She helped push for the district’s On-Track system to measure the progress of each student throughout freshman year and for a CPS office dedicated to supporting students to attend and succeed in college. Both programs rely on gathering student data in real time and getting it out to the schools, and part of what NCS does best is envision how such information can have a greater impact.

“I’m really impressed with how the network uses data for particular issues in their schools,” says Elaine Allensworth, interim executive director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which produces customized school reports that NCS uses with its schools. “They’ve been a great help in thinking about what’s useful to the schools in our data and how to translate it into metrics that people can really understand and use to improve the school.”

Ask anyone in the network about its success, though, and they quickly point out that the human side of the process is just as important, if not more so, than the data. “We’re on the ground and in the schools, and we know them so well. They know we’ll find a way to match what they need with what we can offer,” says Mary Ann Pitcher, the network’s co-director. “There’s a lot of trust we’ve built in the network, both amongst our staff and with the schools. That doesn’t happen spontaneously, but it’s absolutely necessary for the work.”

The network also invests heavily in trust and accountability within the schools, and much of its work is dedicated to building distributed leadership and formal structures. “Being dependent on just hiring smart teachers and top-flight principals is a bad model,” Roderick argues. “There’s this idea that a school can find a Michael Jordan and it’ll be fine. But Michael didn’t win championships until he had a team around him and Phil Jackson worked out the triangle offense. We’re obsessed at the network with systems and structure because that’s how you build something that will last.”

Kenwood Academy, a neighborhood school on the South Side, is a good example. This school year, its Instructional Leadership Team of teachers, a model supported by the network, has taken big steps in sharing decision-making and responsibility throughout the building. “From the beginning we wanted to convince the teachers that the ILT was not something that the administration was pushing. It had to be teacher led,” says David Narain, Kenwood’s assistant principal. “And even last year there was some hesitancy, I think, as teachers were wondering if it could make a difference. This year, teachers are taking responsibility for professional development, for administering school-wide assessments and more. It makes a real difference for what we can accomplish at the school.”

Kenwood’s teachers say that it also took some time to build a level of trust with Sarah Howard, the NCS leadership coach, who regularly visits the school to hear what’s new and give feedback on progress. “I remember my first meeting with Sarah, I was defensive, kind of thinking, ‘Who are you to give this advice?’ Within a month, though, we had that connection,” says Jenny Greenblatt, a teacher at Kenwood and a member of its Instructional Leadership Team. “We saw how she was making us better leaders and pushing us to function better as a group.”

“The way our relationships and data interact is critical,” says NCS co-director Sarah Duncan. “In education, data is often used punitively, to show people they’re doing things wrong. We built trusting relationships in the meetings with leaders and at the schools so that we can talk candidly about what the data is showing, so we can really get at what it will take to change the numbers.”

Although the network’s underlying strategies and philosophy have remained constant, its programs have steadily grown over the last five years. Six months into the project, for example, the network heard that the principals simply didn’t have time to handle everything the schools needed, and so the distributed leadership program was launched.

Eighteen months later, in response to the “Potholes” report, NCS began the College Counselors’ Collaborative to support counselors in moving students through the college search, application and enrollment process. The network’s latest program is Pipeline Project 3.0, a two-year-old effort using the same tools—data, peer learning, coaching and schoolwide structures—to increase the number of highly qualified students who enroll in and graduate from selective colleges and universities.

“If a student here doesn’t fill out a FAFSA form [for federal student aid], they’re not going to college, unless they hit a gold mine,” says Mary Corral, the chair of the counselor department at Hancock High School, a NCS neighborhood school where 91 percent of the students are Hispanic and 95 percent are low-income. To ensure that all students have filed, Corral’s team has a system built on using real-time information from CPS and strategies and support from NCS workshops and meetings. They have a similar process in place so every student applies to at least three colleges and the most capable students apply to five, with a mix of standard, safety and reach schools.

Hancock’s students have also benefitted from a two-year-old partnership between the network and the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, a coalition of small liberal arts colleges that are interested in increasing their student diversity. Although tuition is often high at these colleges, they also typically offer more financial aid, making them more affordable for low-income students, and offer a student-centered environment. The result is students who are more likely to stay in college and graduate.

“College choice is everything. But when you go to neighborhood high schools, most of the counselors have come up through the teacher ranks and they don’t know about schools like Grinnell and what they offer,” Roderick says. “Our work with ACM helps the students who can get into these schools to know they exist and to get the financial support to attend.”

Corral says that more than 20 of Hancock’s graduates are now attending ACM colleges like Coe, Lake Forest and Monmouth. “The ACM network is very influential here,” she says. “And our department has grown a lot since we joined the network. It has been instrumental in helping us become a cohesive group.”

In 2009 NCS also started a project focusing on CPS’s On-Track system for freshmen. The network provides each school with a customized report from the Consortium that compares CPS metrics for the freshman class over time and with other CPS schools. In typical network fashion, the report is only the first step in a dialogue and support to address what the data shows.

“With the On-Track indicator you know that say 200 kids in your building are off-track and it’s only the 10th week of school. What are you going to do about that?” Duncan says. “We help them carefully look at the data and see if course failures are concentrated in math class or mostly in courses after lunch or for more boys than girls. Then together we figure out strategies to turn that around.”

Not surprisingly for NCS, the data leads back to a personal connection. If a student isn’t doing well in first-period English, the reason might be that he simply misses too many classes. “Someone from the school calls home and maybe hears that his mom simply can’t get him up and out in the morning,” Roderick says. “So they suggest he programs his cell phone to be an alarm, and he starts making it to class more often. If that works, I guarantee that kid is not dropping out. You’ve got the parent, because they know that someone cares about them at the school. All this data is really about segmenting and focusing on individual kids and what they need.”

Melissa Roderick, Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor and Principal Investigator for the Network for College Success

There are changes at CPS this year, with a new administration led by CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, and so the Network for College Success is changing as well. With a new district organizational structure, Area 21 was disbanded, and the schools in NCS now fall into four of the five new high school networks.

“It’s certainly a shift. While we were all in one area, the work and goals of NCS and the area could be tightly aligned,” Pitcher says. “But this way allows our schools to share what they’ve learned with the schools in their new networks.” Kenwood, for example, has already hosted a guided visit for 16 colleagues from other high schools to show how they use an internal learning walk as a way to get a better idea of how instruction is improving at their school.

NCS is now consulting with CPS’s central office on topics like instructional improvement and fostering professional learning in schools. “They’ve been really supportive of our experiences and results with high schools, and we’ve been really appreciative of their level of openness and collaboration in working together on high school improvement efforts,” Pitcher says.

The network is also starting this academic year as the lead partner to Hancock and Wells Community Academy as the schools have begun a three-year “transformation” process. Eight schools were selected for the $48 million program, which is targeted at providing social and academic support. “It’s an opportunity to deepen and broaden our work and scope at these two schools,” Pitcher says. “In everything we do, we’re ready to try something new, build on the ideas and structures that have worked so far.”

In a 2007 Consorium paper titled “A New Model for the Role of Research in Supporting Urban School Reform,” Roderick and her co-authors wrote that effectively supporting the search for solutions in schools “requires researchers to ask questions that address the core problems facing practitioners and decision makers and to see themselves less as ‘outside evaluators’ and more as a resource that engages interactively with educators and reformers to build capacity for reform.” With the Network for College Success, she has found a committed set of colleagues to do just that.

For more about Melissa Roderick's groundbreaking work, read "Solving the Drop-Out Crisis."