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Doing Better: Communities in Schools uses data to help at-risk NC students

Once a rising track star and top student, Jamal Tate suddenly found himself heading nowhere very fast.

After moving from Las Vegas to Charlotte in 2008, Tate found his high school years marred by bad friends and even worse behavior, which landed him in jail three times for charges ranging from drug possession to armed robbery.

With his life spiraling out of control, Tate desperately needed help. It came, not a moment too soon, from someone he met in jail – a counselor with Communities in Schools, a national nonprofit focused on K-12 dropout prevention.

With the counselor’s assistance, Tate slowly rebuilt his life. He earned his high school degree and enrolled at Central Piedmont Community College. Now, just three years after leaving jail for the last time, Tate is starting his senior year at Queens University of Charlotte. He’s a model student and citizen, majoring in organizational communication and sharing his personal story with troubled teens as a CIS alum.

“I’d pretty much given up on myself, but CIS stuck with me,” says Tate, 22.

Powerful impact

It’s a dramatic turnaround story but not all that unusual for CIS, which serves 440 school sites across North Carolina, including the Triangle and Charlotte. Of the more than 20,000 at-risk students in the state who receive individualized services from CIS annually, 99 percent stay in school, and 97 percent of seniors graduate from high school. An independent study found that, nationally, every dollar invested in Communities in Schools yields $11.60 in economic benefits for the community.

CIS’ powerful impact starts with a deep commitment to collecting and analyzing data. The nonprofit’s officials keep a close eye on measures that signal potential trouble – increased absences, more disciplinary referrals, lagging reading levels – and take action before problems snowball.

“It’s always a growing and evolving process,” says Eric Hall, CEO and president of Raleigh-based Communities in Schools of North Carolina. “The more data you have, the more you can do.”

A recent study by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, publicized by the N.C. Center for Nonprofits, showed that just 39 percent of our state’s nonprofits regularly collect long-term data on the impact they create for clients. Only 34 percent regularly collect long-term community impact data. And more than two-thirds of our state’s nonprofits say that funders want them to track impact data – but rarely or never pay for the associated costs.

Nonprofits committed to enhancing their data can learn some valuable lessons from CIS, where Hall points to a handful of fundamental steps for measuring impact.

Review frequently

The first: Prioritize data collection and have a good system for gathering it. At the national level, Hall says, Communities in Schools has always made tracking impact a non-negotiable element of its culture. To ensure participation, it invested in a data management system into which all of its affiliates are regularly required to log statistics on trends and outcomes.

Second, CIS allocates dollars and time for seriously digging into the data it collects. Communities in Schools of North Carolina employs a full-time director of research, evaluation and innovation who oversees data collection and, more significantly, helps interpret what the data means and how it should be used to strengthen the nonprofit’s services. CIS also hired RTI International to conduct a third-party evaluation of its impact.

Many nonprofits, of course, do not have the resources to hire evaluation directors or commission third-party impact studies. But, by thinking creatively, they can still make real progress in this arena. Hall recommends they partner with professors and graduate students instead. “In North Carolina, we have so many strong universities. They’re an untapped resource that nonprofits can turn to,” he says.

Third, it’s critical that organizations frequently review their metrics and leverage them to drive performance. As Hall says, if you review your data just once or twice a year, all you have is lag data that tells you very little about your current situation. Many schools in the CIS network do thorough scans of their data every month and often conduct weekly reviews of attendance and other indicators.

A final key: Always remember the real people behind the data – people such as Jamal Tate, who is considering law school and planning for a career in education reform. Without CIS, he says, there’s a good chance he’d be in prison now, a wasted life with far less potential left to measure.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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