Continuous improvement at City Connects

“We’ve been doing continuous improvement work for one and a half years,” Jessica Petrie explains. Petrie is the Continuous Improvement Specialist at City Connects.

Continuous improvement is the demanding work that boils down to two questions: How is City Connects doing? And, how can it be better?

“We are constantly learning,” says City Connects Executive Director Mary Walsh. “Continuously improving the practice allows us to identify challenges, and turn them into opportunities so that we can better serve our students, our teachers, our schools.”

Continuous Improvement: Individual Student Reviews

For City Connects, the first continuous improvement project started organically when the implementation team noticed that some schools weren’t meeting benchmarks for individual student reviews or ISRs.

In the City Connects model, a coordinator does a whole class review: meeting with every classroom teacher to discuss the strengths and needs of every student, one by one. For students facing particularly intense risks, the coordinator recommends an individual student review (ISR).

The ISRs are conducted by Student Support Teams, “an existing school structure that can include school psychologists, teachers, principals, nurses, and occasional community agency staff members” that is typically led by a City Connects coordinator.

Petrie says that given the number of students who experience intensive risk in schools — and haven’t yet been connected to services — at least 8 to 10 percent of students should have been getting ISRs that could help connect them to new, needed services.

But some schools were falling short, only conducting reviews for 6 or 7 percent of students.

Why? A look at City Connects data – including information gathered on routine checklists filled out by coordinators and program managers — revealed two basic problems:

• teachers weren’t always given ISR referral forms, and

• a number of schools didn’t have a set time for student support team meetings

This information was shared with City Connects’ program managers, and they set improvement goals and targets. The goals are their destination. The targets are the action steps required to get to the destination.

The results: Most schools are now meeting the ISR benchmark. And City Connects is keeping the process of reviewing data and setting goals going.

Paying attention to fine points such as forms and meetings can have a huge impact. And the power of checklists has been documented by Boston-area surgeon Atul Gawande in his book “The Checklist Manifesto,” where he writes, good checklists “are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations.”

At City Connects, checklists are also reminders and extremely useful mirrors.

As Petrie moves forward with City Connects’ continuous improvement process, she is incorporating the work of Anthony Bryk, President of the Carnegie Foundation and the author (along with Louis M. Gomez, Alicia Grunow, and Paul G. LeMahieu) of “Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better.”

“We consistently fail to understand what it actually takes to make some promising idea work reliably in practice,” Bryk and his colleagues write. The book calls on educators to draw on improvement science so that they can focus on “learning fast to implement well.”

Bryk’s work draws on improvement science, and “is explicitly designed to accelerate learning-by-doing. It’s a more user-centered and problem-centered approach to improving teaching and learning.”

Bryk has visited City Connects several times, and helped the program develop a four-step process:

1 – pick an area for improvement – or, more directly put, identify a problem

2 – study the existing data to understand what’s going on

3 – share the information with practitioners and invite them to share their feedback; and

4 – set improvement goals and check to see that they’re happening

This procedure draws on the Carnegie Foundation’s “Six Core Principles of Improvement,” which advise educators to “Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly. That failures may occur is not the problem; that we fail to learn from them is.”

Network Improvement: Teacher follow up

Petrie says City Connects has also started a second project that utilizes what Bryk and colleagues call a Network Improvement Community: “intentionally designed social organizations, each with a distinct problem-solving focus.”

City Connects’ Network Improvement Community, includes program managers, the implementation team, and Boston College researchers. This group has identified a new problem to look at: How coordinators follow up with teachers after whole class reviews. To do this, the group reviewed existing data and decided to collect additional data by interviewing teachers and hosting focus groups with coordinators and program managers.

The findings were shared with the community and next steps are being developed. The goal is to clarify, codify and measure the practice around “follow-up with teachers.” In the coming months, Petrie expects to start identifying the action steps for this project, and then set new goals for better follow-up. These steps and goals will be shared with the entire City Connects community.

Bryk says of this work, “We need smarter systems, organizations capable of learning and improving, that see learning and change as what it means to be vital, to be alive.”

At City Connects, we think these smarter systems help us continuously improve our work of helping students succeed.

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