Schoolzilla: How did Lighthouse know they needed someone like you?
Jillian Roth: We’re not the only small school charter organization that has all this data and is like, ‘How are we going to contain it? It can’t just be one person anymore.” There was this opportunity to say, “We need more help, you can’t do this all yourself.’ It’s this moment of saying, “Ok we need someone that’s managing the data and thinking about where does that live, how do we store it, and at the simplest level, it not being on everyone’s computers but at a central location.’ Those practical things. [Someone who’s also], thinking about security and privacy, which we’re all thinking about across our work.
SZ: It can be a pretty unique position. Was it hard for [Lighthouse] to develop a scope for it?
JR: My position was definitely informed– and the creation and description was supported– through fellow data champions. My colleague, as she was writing the description, definitely used folks as a resource to ask, ‘So how do you call it? What’s the work that that looks like? How can we bring in a person who can really help move this Schoolzilla thing forward?’
SZ: What were you looking for in a new job?
JR: It was really a connection of research and data management was where I was looking. That commitment to data, social justice (seeing the work that had already been done and knowing I’d be proud to say I worked there), definitely also leadership, how family-oriented it really is (so many of the staff’s kids go there, our CEO Jenna, her kids go there, everyone’s commitment to the mission, not just as a professional but also to send your own kids there and really say, ‘I’m committed, this is my family; school is actually an extension of my family.’), and I loved that I was in Oakland (in terms of commute).
I have to say now that I’m in it, I have a new approach to… my next career move of searching within school systems. That wasn’t on my list per se. But that was really exciting to me because it felt like the connection [to students] I needed. So much my work had been at the national level that I wanted to be grounded in more of the day-to-day experience of being right here. My desk, I literally could see kindergartners everyday last year. That [was a] reminder of, “Oh yeah, I’m crunching this to tell their story and to share the work we’re all doing together to make Oakland shine.”
So yeah. Those were the big ones; they’re all pretty big.
SZ: That’s a high bar!
JR: I know, I have a high bar. True, true!
SZ: And once you got the job, what was the onboarding experience like?
JR: Simply put, my onboarding experience was ideal. In a lot of ways, I felt supported to learn about the organization and be pulled into the community from day one. What’s really amazing is for those who are new hires to the organization, they have a week of onboarding. From day one, really learning about the organization; we got to take a learning walk in Oakland to meet with some kids who gave us a tour of their neighborhood and [share] where they were coming from and the impact being at Lighthouse has had on them. [We got] an understanding of what our kids are facing just to get to school every single day. From that perspective, I was like, “Ok, they’re walking the walk.” Not just, “Here’s a dataset; analyze it.” [Instead, they said,] “Before you do that, understand who we’re serving and why.” That thread carried throughout the year because we have professional development four times a year. So there’s been opportunities to stay connected with my fellow colleagues who also were new to Lighthouse and also opportunities to integrate with folks who have been there a really long time. That balance of, “Yes, your work is really important, you’re going to get to it really quickly. But let’s also take a couple days to ground you in this work.”
For my particular role, I was given the green light to chat with folks. I felt compelled that there was so much being held by individuals that I couldn’t leap in with just my background knowledge of data management and say, “Ok, this is what we’re going to do.” I really had the space to chat with fellow school leaders and ask them, “What are your data dreams? Not only how do you use data, but how do you dream that data can be used and help you make decisions in the future?”
SZ: I love the data dreams! How did you keep expectations realistic in these conversations?
JR: I had a pretty clear understanding of the work we were hoping to accomplish, so I was able to go into those conversations and say, “For one, I’m wanting to understand what are the pieces of data that you hold and track individually that hopefully we can embed so it doesn’t feel like you’re the only person who knows where that lives and how to crunch those numbers. But also to give the expectation that “Yes, I’m asking you to dream and all dreams take time.” I was well-grounded what was the desire for the year and what we could maybe push a little bit more without crushing people’s dreams. “Let’s go there, because we have the space for that, and this is probably what’s really going to happen.”
SZ: How soon did it take you, as Instructional Data Manager, to come to work feeling like, “Some things are challenging, but mostly I got it”?
JR: It’s interesting. In some ways, I would say now. In other ways I would say I was confident from day one. There are just different degrees of it. In terms of feeling confident that they made the right call in hiring me, it was probably in that first month or six weeks while I was conducting these informational interviews. [It felt like] “Yeah! I’m not only getting powerful data (what folks need and what we’re tracking) it’s also grounding me in the bigger picture of the work.” For myself, I had this vision of, “I’m going to go in, I’m going to create this chart and outline how everything is.” And I was reminded that it really does take a whole cycle to understand the work of an organization. I felt confident doing what I was being asked from a day-to-day perspective, but now I truly feel grounded in what’s possible, the timing of things, where things can get caught up a little bit and [now I can] think about that more strategically as we plan for the next year.
Confidence– and in particular with data– it’s like a wave. Some days you feel like, “Yeah, I’m on top of the world! Look what we did: it’s telling all the things we want it to say!” And then you log back in three days later and something’s off and you’re like, “I gotta troubleshoot. What’s this going to take?” All those different components of feeling on top and then diving into the deep and being like, “Ok, we gotta figure this out.”
SZ: It happens to everybody.
SZ: When you think about the past year, what was most challenging?
JR: When I think about some of those dips, it wasn’t that it was a low point, it was the dip of having to step away because there was a specific data request that we weren’t going to easily get from, say, a report. So we needed to get back in Excel and just crunch the numbers and be with the data. Ultimately, I feel like it all served its purpose; [one-off data requests] allow you to build community to support your colleagues in ways that are helping them do their jobs. None of it was challenging per se. The challenge was feeling pulled [between] “I want to help build the system that allows us to do this work systematically and in a different way, but I understand you have this time-sensitive need and you don’t care that it looks nice in this report three months from now.”
One of the questions we were pondering just this week was, how can we anticipate some of those data requests better? What are the time periods where folks are more likely to say, ‘I need this data.’? And what are the ones where we can quickly say, “We have this new data portal that really aligns with all our outcomes and indicators and it has links to either a Schoolzilla report or a particular graphic we’ve created that links to it.” To know that we have more of a structure to get folks thinking, “You actually already have what you need. Maybe it’s not a new request, maybe it’s us helping you think about how you can filter it.” There’s the ability now that we have enough structure in place, that we can really build culture around using those tools and still meet requests that that system doesn’t necessarily support.
SZ: What’s been the most impactful or most meaningful project you’ve worked on so far?
JR: When I think back as well, a project that definitely had an impact on me was that I was asked to support a [statistics] class where they were collecting student data on their experience, on culture. It was the moment as a researcher and in my continued desire to be a mentor and to support others of being like, “Wow! I get to show these students that I’m actually doing the same work: I’m looking at staff data in a way that they’re looking at student data.” In both of our work in collecting that data, we can connect it and actually see some patterns between how students think and how staff feel and be like, “Well no wonder there’s this bi-directional connection!”
SZ: Looking forward to this coming school year– or I guess this year– what are you most excited about?
JR: This isn’t having to twist my arm, I’m truly feeling excited to explore Mosaic more and really see how that can be a quick, big-picture, birds-eye view of where things are at. And getting folks excited to then dive deeper into reports and in particular, last year, our goal has really been to get this global look across our reports. And [that’s] mainly because of the way our organizational structure is: not only do we have our two schools, but our charter is set up slightly differently where we have to organize data in a way that’s not typical for everyone, we also look at it across the charters– there’s just all these ways we’re disaggregating the data. I feel like we’ve figured out this sweet spot where we’re getting what we need using the tools we have access to but not having to do as much of the number-crunching as I know I’ve had to do in years past. I was sharing with someone recently that I love Excel, but I actually feel a little rusty in it because I’ve spent so much time thinking in this other level of thinking. “Ok, the data are stored here, and I have access to all of it!” It’s really about what is the question I’m trying to answer and then using a visual to answer it. There’s just so many possibilities.
SZ: What advice would you give to people who are stepping into a new role, especially who have never had this type of role anywhere before?
JR: First and foremost, be confident that you were the right hire. There’s a reason you were picked. I also think it’s important to trust that you’re doing to be doing a lot of learning, trust that it’s not about it being perfect, but getting a draft in motion that can then be improved with feedback and making it useful for those who are using it. In some ways, you’ve got to give yourself a break, especially if you’re brand brand new to this. And that said, have fun! You’re learning something new! Especially if you work at a school, you’re in a community of learners. Not only are you serving students, but you get to learn.
SZ: And now that you’re in it, how are you feeling about the potential for social impact that a data role can have?
JR: I think– not only do I think, but I know– that data has the power to truly underline any sort of point you’re trying to make, for both the positive or the negative. There’s opportunities– again, I feel like I keep going back to data telling a story, but I do think data has that ability. Especially when you think about data across the continuum of both being quantitative and qualitative. And folks don’t know what they don’t know. Just because you see it so clearly or you understand what you’re seeing through the numbers or the data, it doesn’t mean everyone necessarily sees it that way, including leaders. I also have a background in human and organizational development, and while folks know there are certain numbers they should look at, that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand them or know what to do with them.
We’re at an interesting place in education in particular because everyone is always going to ask about achievement numbers, but based on many of the state accountability and also local initiatives, we’re wanting to push beyond those numbers. There are some real opportunities to explore data in terms of social-emotional learning, community-building, family-building– that sort of thing. Where does our work happen at the intersection?
You can help use data to make that possible. And while you might not have the title, or positionality, or even feel like you have the power to push that narrative, you have the data to back it up. You’re not just sharing some lofty, ideal vision; you’re helping to ground what’s possible in numbers and also the words and stories of your students, your staff, and the community. It goes back to trusting yourself and listening to that voice inside: if you feel like there’s something someone’s not noticing, use your skills to uplift that through what’s in your control. And that’s data!