News: Collaboration & Partnerships

How PEF-Chattanooga Uses Data and Partnerships to Improve Student Outcomes

Tuesday, January 28, 2020  
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By Janai Raphael, Graduate Assistant for Research and Data Analysis

In 2018, 20 school districts and nonprofits received grants to begin working to “change the way they do business around postsecondary advising” for students as part of the To & Through Advising Challenge. The grantees are committed to improving postsecondary outcomes for their students in four key ways: 

    1. Incorporating fit and match into postsecondary advising.

    2. Increasing FAFSA completion and mitigating the effects of verification.

    3. Reducing the effects of summer melt.

    4. Accomplishing all of these things in a data-driven way. 

There are a lot of different strategies and practices being implemented across grantee organizations this academic year. Through our “Best Practice Profiles,” NCAN will share the stories of grantees that have made progress in one or more of the grant's four aims and highlight some of the best practices for NCAN members.

The first spotlight covers the Public Education Foundation-Chattanooga. PEF-Chattanooga is a community-based organization in Tennessee that provides “training, research, and resources to teachers, and principals, and schools in Hamilton County and surrounding areas.” PEF-Chattanooga focuses its work and partnership with Hamilton County School District on improving school leadership, teacher leadership, and college and career readiness for students.

NCAN had the opportunity to interview Stacy Lightfoot who sits on the senior leadership team at PEF-Chattanooga as the vice president of college & career success. Below is NCAN’s interview where Stacy describes her passion for college access, details one of PEF-Chattanooga’s newest initiatives, and offers advice and insight to other stakeholders invested in improving postsecondary pathways for their students. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

NCAN: Why is this work around students and postsecondary outcomes personally important to you as an organization leader?

Stacy Lightfoot: I am an outcome of the care and attention that an expert gave to me. It was almost 30 years ago when I was participating in the college application process, and all of these terms weren't out and coined the way that they are now. Regardless, my college counselor in high school knew what to do to lead students to best-fit postsecondary pathways, best-fit postsecondary colleges, universities, HBCUs, etc. However, not every student has the opportunity to connect to someone like I did.

Keeping up with trends and understanding that there's a lot more tools and technology in 2019, students can access [college information] more easily, but they're not exposed to it or being led to it in even the kind of ways that I was 30 years ago, which led me to the college that I went to and graduated from in four years. That's what I want to do.

I want to teach other adults how to do that for this generation of students. I want to continue to work with kids, especially those who are disenfranchised, who are marginalized, and who have the least amount of exposure to those opportunities. That's why I am personally invested in this work. It is my passion. It is my purpose. This is not a job to me. I was led to this. I thought I was going to be an actress when I was in high school and college, where I majored in theater. When I got into this world, I connected with NCAN, followed the trends, and have grown with institutions and organizations. I want to be the best professional and expert I can be so I can do better for students and families.

Within today's context, which practices for changing postsecondary advising and improving postsecondary outcomes in your district are most promising to you?

Based on the story that I just shared, it is the knowledge that the adults have and the mindset that the adults have to believe in every student and the capability of every student. 

Sometimes you have an adult who is really nice and really helpful if a student comes up and says, “I want to apply to these regional institutions that may be one or two hours away." These are the institutions that students hear about all the time. That adult says, “Oh my goodness. I can help you with that application." That adult doesn't always know that they need to spend additional time understanding a little bit more about the student to suggest that they may be a better fit for a small liberal arts college.

There are people who are doing good work, but then you have students who are going to school that may not be a good fit, may be an [academic] undermatch, or might not match the students' social emotional needs. Other times, people have the mindset of, "Aww. These poor kids. There's no way that they can go to a four-year school. Of course, I'll help them fill out the community college application.” They've already assumed that this student isn't going to make it, so, “let me tell them about a vocational program.”

For me, it's also about the expertise of the adult. You don't have to come into the space of a college and career adviser as an expert. I didn't. I learned how to become [an expert] by being connected to NCAN, NACAC, SACAC, and surrounding myself with really smart people who had been to hundreds of college campuses and who knew a lot. In the public school system, there aren't a lot of resources to connect school counselors and advisors to professional development opportunities to constantly stay on top of what the trends are. If a school counselor or college and career adviser doesn't know about the opportunities, then they can’t share those opportunities with students. 

What do you think it would take to improve the communications and collaboration between organizations like yours, K-12 systems, and higher education institutions?

Removing the blame. There's this drawing where it has all of these people pointing fingers. So you have the college pointing at the high school, the high school pointing at the elementary school, the elementary school pointing at the parents, the parents pointing at the community, and the high school pointing at the college because the students aren't finishing. If you're pointing at everybody, then who's to blame? I believe once you can get past calling out people, you can call in people. That's something new that has stuck with me over the course of the last couple of months. 

We use data a lot to drive the work and paint a picture of how dire some of these challenges are, these outcomes are. We use the data to call out institutions. We don't use the data to call in institutions. By the time we want them in they're like, "You've called us out so much." So it's trust. It really is building trust with all of these partners. Then you can have the president of the local two-year college and four-year college, the local philanthropic and business sector, and the chamber all coming together to talk about the P-20 space. You also need a champion. Someone needs to wake up every day thinking about how to bring people together. People know what needs to happen, but if you don't have someone who's paid to do it, it's not going to get done. 

What advice would you offer to other stakeholders who are seeking buy-in from district leaders to invest in this work?

I would say stick with it. Take charge. Find a way to find a common agenda. Most people want the same thing. For example, the district wants their students to be educated in the K-12 system so that they can be prepared for life beyond graduation. That could be work or college. You've got businesses who want qualified workers who are able to show up on time and think critically to problem solve. You want colleges who want the same kinds of students. So you have to realize that what you want is what everyone else wants. Once you find a common language and share a common agenda, you can help people realize that we're not asking you to do anything different, we just want you to do it differently with us.

If we are patient around a common agenda, everyone wins. I think [school systems] see the benefit and how their college-going students are going to be retained, persist, and graduate. [Employers] realize that if we stay on another year [in a partnership], we can help the school system to fill some of these jobs with our students instead of going out-of-state. 

I want to shift gears to learn a little bit more about the dashboard that PEF is developing for Hamilton County Schools. What's the vision for the data platform? Who do you envision will use it and how?

The dashboard is very much like a college search. What makes it different is the information that students see. It is more than just general information about the college, like where the college is located, how many college students are here, and how much the school costs. All of those things are there, but we added to our dashboard the graduation rates of the schools. Students can also see the graduation rates of Asian students, Hispanic students, African American students. So now they have additional data that could be used to help them make an informed decision about where to go and which institution knows how to help them be successful.

I envision a trusted adult sitting with students, helping them understand why graduation rates are data that should mean something and matter, and the college search process. Many times students don't really think about that, so it's helping shift students' mentality of what goes into making that decision. In addition your basic questions like what size school do you want, how far from home, and what kind of majors they offer. It's that plus other information as well. Counselor, advisers, students, and parents are the users.

What were the challenges of securing buy-in to launch a new initiative like the dashboard within the district?

It's yet another thing that someone has to learn. It's yet another thing that people are accountable for. When you see it as “another thing,” even though it may be the greatest tool. We launched a YouScience last year in the schools, and as much as I love YouScience, people were like, “Ugh!” It became another task. They didn't see it as a value added to the work that they already do.

So I think when things are launched matters. I think who might champion it matters. So the more buy-in and ownership we can get from advisers and school counselors, I think the more students will use it. That's networking. That's bringing people together and giving counselors and advisers a space to learn something new, useful, helpful. And I think we have those kinds of relationships.

At this point in the dashboard development and considering all the other work that PEF has done with Hamilton County Schools, what are some of the key takeaways or lessons that you've already learned from working so closely with the school district?

It is being patient. We work with a [community-based organization], so there's not a lot of bureaucracy here. We're able to kind of create things and create them quickly. Because we have the ability to do that, we want to share those things quickly, and we want other people to use them quickly. But it takes time building the relationship, building the network, creating the space for people to understand who you are so they trust you when you do, and, finally, introduce them to this new thing that they now have to embed in their work. So it really is around not how to build relationships, but, the patience that it takes to dance with a partner at a speed that works for them.

Is there anything else that you think I'm missing that has been truly critical to PEF advancing its work with Hamilton County?

We've got some phenomenal leaders. Our superintendent is bold, and one of the words that he uses all the time is "alignment." When he first came to this district a couple of years ago, he noticed that we have tons of programs, but they weren’t aligned. So, we've had to shift and think about ways to creatively align with the work that he's doing. It's the same kind of work with the same target audience. We both want to help students, but it's doing it in a way that makes sense to all parties. That's collective impact. It's doing things in a way that that makes sense to all of our stakeholders. So I would say be flexible enough and patient enough to align.


Thank you to Stacy for her time, insight, and effort on behalf of students and to PEF-Chattanooga for their great work and NCAN membership. Stay tuned for future blog posts where NCAN will highlight additional promising practices!

(Photo by David Sager on Unsplash)