You may notice that the website has gotten a bit of an overhaul. I wanted to better communicate what clients get from working with me and what makes Structured Solutions different from other small evaluation firms.
The biggest change is that I've restructured the services I provide. There are now three distinct packages that clients can buy -- all still customizable, of course -- that will help you achieve your data and evaluation goals. The graphic below gives a quick overview, but I go into more detail below:
All three packages are designed as steps that organizations can take towards telling a rich, compelling story about the work they do for students and families and the impacts they have on their clients. Here are the details about each package:
BUILD YOUR EVALUATION CAPACITY
For organizations who are truly at the start of their data journey, this package is an ideal starting point. Your organization will get a customized training and follow-up technical assistance in the areas you need. The goal is for your entire team to leave the training with confidence that they can work with and use data like a pro.
CREATE A CULTURE OF DATA
The second package builds on the first and will include the custom trainings and support from Build Your Evaluation Capacity. After your team has been trained, we will get to work on developing data systems and procedures that are accessible to all skill levels. Depending on your organization's needs, we will create simple, customized systems for data collection, management, or visualization that allow for sustainability and continued attention to data in the future.
MEASURE YOUR IMPACT
In order to truly tell your organization's story, you must first know what impact you're actually having. The third package gives you all of the benefits of the first two but will culminate in a full-scale needs assessment or evaluation. As this type of work tends to be highly individualized and ongoing, we will work together to design a package that fits your needs and ensures that any evaluative requirements from funders or supervising organizations are met.
If your organization is in the beginning stages of its data journey and could use some support, I'd love to set up a conversation with you.
I love to read. Curling up with a good book and getting lost in the story for hours is pure bliss for me. Of course, adulthood prevents this from being a regular occurrence, but I still treasure the time I spend reading and the lessons I learn from the books on my shelves.
I was struggling to come up with a topic for this week's post and decided to look at my notebook of what I've read over the years. Given that a new decade has officially commenced, I excitedly realized that I could reflect on my favorite and most inspiring reads from the past decade. If Barack Obama and Bill Gates can share their lists of favorite books, why can't I? With much difficulty, I chose one book that I read each year that helped me understand the world - and why it is the way it is - with greater clarity and from other perspectives.
This book by two acclaimed reporters focuses on how empowering women in developing countries can bring about a reduction of poverty and an economic boost for all. Discussions on the impact of micro-finance - providing small loans to women (or men) to help them start a business, get an education, and/or support their families - and the stories of individual women who benefited it are compelling. The authors show how even minor investments can have a tremendous return - economically and emotionally - for women who have been abused, disenfranchised, or simply undervalued.
As an alumna of Johns Hopkins and a longtime Baltimorean, the story of Henrietta Lacks intrigued me on many levels. Rebecca Skloot's book talks about how a black woman in Baltimore in the 1950s inadvertently became the foundation of widespread and landmark medical research. Not only did I learn about the HeLa cells (which were removed from her when she was treated for cancer at Hopkins Hospital and used for research without consent) and the science they inspired, but I also got new insights into what Baltimore and Hopkins were like during segregation, how differently black patients experienced medical care than white patients, and how the Lacks family still struggles today.
I distinctly remember my 9th grade U.S. History teacher discussing this novel and its implication of the meatpacking industry in the early 1900s. I didn't think I could stomach Sinclair's descriptions of "how the sausage gets made" then, but when I read this classic as an adult, I was astonished to learn that this book is about so much more than horrifying practices of Chicago's meatpacking plants. What struck me most were the immense challenges faced by immigrant communities at the time and the conditions they had no choice but to endure in order to support their families and survive.
I would be remiss to not include a book by my hero, Jonathan Kozol. His compassionate and candid discussions of poverty and the unacceptable conditions of educational systems in America have inspired me since I was in college, and I was lucky enough to hear him speak and meet him many years ago. This book commemorates 25 years of his critically important work by following up with the children he befriended and wrote about through his impassioned research and storytelling.
Although this text was written in 1962, it is still incredible relevant to educational debates today. Callahan reflects on how the "efficiency movement" of the early 1900s influenced the structure of schooling in America. His book shares how the management of time and production efforts in American factories spawned everything from traditional school schedules and bell systems to accountability structures and the desire for measuring ... well, everything. Since schools are human-serving organizations and therefore quite different from factories, this book made so much sense to me as a partial explanation for how our educational systems developed in a misguided way.
My college professor (and my friend and mentor to this day), Dr. Floyd Hayes, is a Richard Wright scholar and first introduced me to his work. I've read many of Wright's books over the years and in fact started 2020 with one of his masterpieces. Yet Black Boy stuck with me in a profound way. This is Wright's autobiographical work, and his profoundly moving descriptions of hunger as a child made that phenomenon clear to me in a way that nothing else had. I am fortunate to have always had food on the table, but this book gave me a powerful understanding for those who struggle every day.
Ryan's book about the differences between two large high schools - one in a suburb and the other in the neighboring city - and the political underpinnings of those differences was not a comfortable read. He describes in detail the way that local, state, and national governments and courts have historically and systematically "saved the cities and spared the suburbs" through damaging, discriminatory policies. These policies and legal decisions, made under the guise of being progressive and helpful, in fact helped to keep our schools and neighborhoods segregated and our non-white citizens disadvantaged. This book, among others read at the same time, completely transformed the way I think about our government, public institutions, and society in general.
This novel follows the breakdown of a once tight-knit family after their only daughter experiences a significant trauma. While I have enjoyed many of Oates' novels, this one was a particularly compelling illustration of how trauma not only affects the person who initially experiences it, but how it also impacts the entire family system. Told from the perspective of the youngest brother, this is a story that I could not put down and that kept me thinking.
Anderson argues that our country's horrifying system of mass incarceration is the newest iteration of the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century. She shares compelling parallels between the systems of control, containment, and oppression used during slavery, segregation, and in between, to maintain white superiority and the widespread incarceration of black men that began with the War on Drugs. Her discussion of racism and social control is informative and eye-opening and is a critical read for understanding the dynamics of our current society.
This had been on my reading list for a few years, after hearing author Kathryn Edin speak at a conference. I wish I had gotten to it sooner, as it was one of the most enlightening books I have read in a while. Edin and Shaefer tell the stories of a number of families who, through circumstances often beyond their control, effectively live without any income. In what seem like unfathomable situations, the parents highlighted in this book dispel stereotypes about people living in poverty or who receive/are eligible for public assistance. I was blown away by the sheer resilience and persistence that these families continually demonstrated, and I learned so much about just how little is done to support those who need it most.
Which books inspired you the most over the past decade? Share your recommendations in the comments!
I know I'm in good company when I say that I'm not sad to say goodbye to 2019. I also know that the challenges I faced this year pale in comparison to the experiences of so many others whom I have read or heard about throughout the year. Yet personally and professionally, this year seemed to have a never-ending supply of curveballs to throw my way. I am happy and thankful to report that 2019 has ended far better than it started, but looking back, I can admit that I learned a lot of important lessons over the past 12 months.
Lesson 1: I've got a lot of good people in my corner. Here's a short list of who I'm especially grateful for:
Lesson 2: Sometimes you need a different perspective on the problem. Transitioning my business from Baltimore, where I lived for over a decade, to Columbus, where I didn't know anyone, was more challenging than I anticipated. After a number of frustrating months, I realized that there were other ways to run my business than the few tried and true strategies I was using. I started reaching out to people from different fields and points in their career for new insights.
I learned about search engine optimization, value-based marketing, and customer relationship management software. I joined the Ohio Program Evaluators Group (OPEG) and went to my first American Evaluation Association Conference. I gained a huge network of like-minded and supportive people who have opened up a world of ideas and opportunities for me. I learned that there is always something I can try to reach new potential clients, expand my impact on schools and communities, and grow my business. These experiences lit a fire under me to continue trying new things to make Structured Solutions better than ever.
Lesson 3: It's never ALL bad. I can't even tell you how many rejections I got this year. I felt so defeated and unclear about how to move forward. However, a lot of great things happened in 2019 too - they just get clouded by the discouraging events of this year. Here are some awesome things that happened for Structured Solutions in 2019:
I'm glad to put 2019 behind me, but like all challenging experiences, I know that it has helped me grow as a person and as a business owner. I am optimistic that 2020 will be a better year (hopefully for everyone else too!), but I aim to continue the spirit of character-building, self-improvement, and continuous learning that 2019 necessitated.
Happy New Year!
It's funny where the most interesting and engaging conversations can happen. At the gym last week, I had a few random, but passionate conversations with other members of the educational (and martial arts!) community about youth experiencing trauma and how it impacts their ability to participate in school, learn effectively, and handle their emotions.
Trauma is something I wish I had learned about when I became a teacher over ten years ago. Like many new teachers, I struggled with classroom management. It is probably not surprising to learn that as a 5'2", 22 year-old woman, I did not have a natural authoritative presence. However, there were many other reasons for the challenges I faced -- ineffective and harmful administrators, a lack of shared expectations among our middle school team, and my own battle with anxiety. These all contributed to what often felt like turmoil in my classroom. While I always empathized with the challenges my students faced in their own lives, I never fully understood the ramifications of the trauma and hardship they experienced -- nor did I know where to connect them or their families for additional support.
I was lucky because the school had a wonderful social worker and part-time psychologist to whom I could refer students. They also served as great supports and sources of advice and knowledge for me as a new educator. Yet, there was little capacity and no infrastructure at the school for understanding and responding to trauma. I remember being told that students were experiencing homelessness, hearing stories about families who were involved in gangs, and seeing that students were extremely impoverished, but I had no tools to process these situations or fully support my students. I felt anguish about the situations they were experiencing, but I know I did not always respond effectively.
Years later, after working in a community school and supporting many others, I know what more effective and comprehensive supports can look like. I have seen the benefits of wraparound services for students and families, including a full mental health team; meaningful enrichment and engagement opportunities for students and adults; connections to resources for basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, and adult education; efforts to track and review data on engagement, attendance, and supports provided; and most importantly, a loving and affirming approach to working with students and families with the greatest needs. Community schools -- schools that become a hub of the surrounding community and provide these wraparound services for students, families, and community members -- are well-supported by research. This model has been shown to be beneficial in reducing chronic absenteeism, improving school climate, increasing student achievement, and more. One of the findings from a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report states that:
"The evidence base provides a strong warrant for using community schools to meet the needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools and to help close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from low-income families, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities."
So when my friend at the gym, a high school guidance counselor, told me that his school effectively did not have any mental health clinicians available to students, I was taken aback. I talk to him frequently about his school and the amazing ways in which he supports his students, so I was shocked to learn that this large high school was so under-resourced in this area. The school seems to be on its way toward providing wraparound services, with a brand new food pantry and the dedication of counselors like my friend. Yet this conversation made me realize that the services I took for granted in Baltimore City schools -- which were still often insufficient to meet the high level of need -- did not exist everywhere.
This was a critical and humbling realization. Of course, if we could make students' barriers disappear -- or at least provide them with the resources that they need to overcome these barriers and thrive -- we would. But in the absence of a magic wand, what can we do? From my lens, this is where needs assessments and data tracking can play a huge role. Imagine if we collected stories from students, families, and staff about the challenges faced by the school community, each stakeholder group's perceived needs, and their recommendations for meeting those needs. Now think about if we used factual data about the community and student population to support those stories. What we would get is an intensely compelling, collective narrative about what this community needs and how its members feel those needs could be met.
Could a needs assessment or set of data instantly bring on a full slate of mental health workers at this school? Of course not. But when we tell our story effectively, people (read: funders, decision-makers, influencers) listen. And when people start listening, we can inspire them to make change.
This was an unusual Thanksgiving for my family. My parents have always hosted Thanksgiving at their house; it is one of the few family traditions that remains since my Grandma passed away. All was set to continue as usual this year, until last week, when my Grandpa -- the effervescent, 89 year-old patriarch of the family -- began experiencing significant back pain. It quickly became evident that the trip to my parents' house would be too much for him. Like good evaluators, we continually monitored the situation and used the data we gathered to determine what changes we could make to ensure that the family would be together and that my Grandpa would be as comfortable as possible.
We ended up bringing Thanksgiving to him. Different family members were nervous for different reasons. My parents now had to factor in a one-hour drive into their cooking schedule, and others had to adjust their travel plans. Some were skeptical about having Thanksgiving in a different location, and given that we all adore my Grandpa, we were worried about how he was feeling. Afterwards, when I reflected on how the day went, I realized that most of the questions on everyone's minds had been fairly quantifiable:
To determine the success of our Thanksgiving dinner, we could track these metrics or others, such as the number of family members who came (11) or the amount of time everyone spent at my Grandpa's house (approximately three hours). These are all important details that help us craft the story of our Thanksgiving dinner. Yet these facts could never describe the contentment on my Grandpa's face as he sat at the head of the table and listened to the family's jokes and conversations. A series of data points would never suffice to explain how happy we all were to see him acting like his usual, wonderful self because he had just had a wonderful day. No spreadsheet in the world -- and I LOVE a spreadsheet -- could have ever captured the hope that my Grandpa had after a day with much less pain and far more happiness than he had had in a few weeks.
Of course, I would never methodically evaluate our family dinner -- but isn't this exactly what we try to do when we try to measure family engagement in our schools? We host events and programs, offer services and supports, and build relationships like pros, but we struggle to figure out how we can capture the impact that we have made and share that impact with others. We count names on sign-in sheets and have participants rate their satisfaction, and we hope to show that we made a difference in our students' and families' lives. Those pieces of information are critical -- we need to track those metrics to track our progress over time and demonstrate growth in our programming and our reach within school communities. Yet, our standard documentation cannot capture the joy on a mother's face as she gets a relaxed moment to play and learn with her child or the pride that a father exudes when he has just completed his first professional resume. These are two examples from my work as a Community School Coordinator that have stayed with me to this day -- and neither came from one of my beloved spreadsheets.
This is why stakeholder voices and qualitative data are so important. Certainly, if the turkey never cooked or if no one showed up, our Thanksgiving would have been very different. However, what made Thanksgiving so special for me was watching my Grandpa's joyful reactions during dinner and hearing him speak happily on the phone for days afterward. For those of us in the field of family and community engagement, these are the types of reactions we live for and the motivation we need to keep doing the tough work. To best capture our impacts and tell our stories, we must take this mixed-methods approach, enhancing our traditional measures with rich stories and perspectives from our most important stakeholders. For me, this is what makes evaluation -- even of a Thanksgiving dinner -- most powerful, interesting, and even fun.
The Structured Solutions Announcements page has been reimagined into an issue-centered blog to illuminate critical ideas and events that affect the schools, communities, and families that we serve. This is the third post of the new blog.
In my career, I've always identified as an educator first. I have proudly rooted my analytical and consulting practices in my experiences directly serving students, families, schools, and communities. However, as my career and business have evolved, and as I gained the additional identity of "evaluator," I always felt that I did not quite fit into that community. Sure, I have training and experience in quantitative and qualitative data collection, analysis, and reporting. Sure, I work to help schools, districts, and non-profits complete evaluation projects and build out protocols and procedures for continuing this critical work. Sure, my job title has even been "Evaluator." Despite these things, something did not click for me on a deep level.
I never doubted my ability to relate to and help my clients with their evaluation needs. It was the pressure to label what I do or who I am that has caused me a lot of stress. When I attended previous conferences about research and evaluation, I always encountered career evaluators, whose methodologies were their bread and butter, and who yearned to understand the newest and most advanced statistical methodologies. That's not me, and for a long time, I thought that was a problem.
This past week, I attended the American Evaluation Association's Evaluation 2019 conference in Minneapolis. I was excited to see a number of sessions and activities related to independent consultants and to my other areas of interest in the field -- creating data dashboards and evaluating programs serving families, to name a few. I was looking forward to connecting to new people and meeting up with those whom I already knew. What I did not expect was an experience that transformed how I see myself within the evaluator community and how I can use my refined identity to better serve my clients.
Here were my key takeaways:
Thinking of my business as malleable -- as an opportunity for innovation and as a dynamic, growing entity -- is exciting. With this realization, it feels like the possibilities are endless for Structured Solutions. Thanks to AEA and the wonderful people with whom I conversed and interacted this week, I am happily embracing my new all-encompassing identity. What is your evaluation identity?
The Structured Solutions Announcements page has been reimagined into an issue-centered blog to illuminate critical ideas and events that affect the schools, communities, and families that we serve. This is the second post of the new blog.
Most of us have been raised to believe that school is the great equalizer, the ticket to success in life, or the escape from the circumstances into which you were born. For many people, this adage has undoubtedly been true. This principle is what drew me into education -- that providing high-quality educational opportunities could help those who had fewer advantages given to them in life and could thereby inspire and uplift future generations. I have worked to provide direct educational and wrap-around services to students and families and supported and coached school teams trying to do the same for their communities.
However, the more time I spend in urban education, and the more I read about and study the history of it, the less I am convinced of this idealism. Certainly, I still believe that schools have the potential to be incredible hubs of learning, caring, and growing -- for students, staff, and families alike. However, for communities and populations whose opportunity to take advantage of "the great equalizer" has been quietly and systematically squandered by discriminatory and self-serving policies (For a primer, read James Ryan's Five Miles Away, A World Apart), schools simply cannot overcome the influence of these social and political forces and their resultant effects alone. Of course, I still wholeheartedly believe in the power of family and community engagement, in the promise of community schools, and in the hope that dedicated and compassionate professionals bring to the students and families they serve. Yet, we must address the root causes of the challenges faced in order to see systemic change in our educational systems across the country.
Yesterday, basketball star LeBron James made a landmark announcement that works to address these root causes for students at his I Promise School here in Ohio. In partnership with a boutique hotel chain, the Lebron James Family Foundation will be renovating a historic building near the school's campus in order to provide transitional housing for families of students at I Promise who are experiencing homelessness. For those families, this is a game-changer.
In the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the definition of homelessness has a much wider reach than some could imagine. According to the law, those designated as "homeless" refers to "... individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." This could include:
Due to the wide variety of conditions that could qualify a person or family as homeless, it is often difficult to get an accurate estimate of the scope of the problem. A report from HUD estimated that on a single night in early 2018, over 552,000 people experienced homelessness, an increase from the previous year. One-third of this identified homeless population consisted of families with children. However, it is likely that this estimate was unable to capture the full range of individuals and families without safe, permanent housing, especially those who are staying with friends or family.
The effects of being homeless on children and youth are numerous and significant. Julianelle and Foscarinis (2003) write that the McKinney-Vento Act works to protect these students from unnecessary disruption and mobility, which can lead to inconsistent social connections and educational supports. We know that students who are homeless are also likely to live in poverty, and this combination of traumatic situations can only amplify their effects; Murphy and Tobin (2011) discuss the wide range of effects that homeless students experience. These include: health issues from less-than-ideal sleeping conditions and environments, reduced access to proper medical care, or an inadequate food supply; mental health issues stemming from an increase risk of being a victim of violence, a lack of stable social supports, and the stress of not having a stable or permanent home; and academic issues as a result of potential developmental delays; frequently changing schools; and high rates of chronic absenteeism.
To mitigate some of these many risk factors, McKinney-Vento enables homeless students to stay in the school they attended before becoming homeless, even if they are temporarily living in a different area; receive transportation to and from their temporary residence to that school; enroll into school right away, even if they do not have all of the necessary documents; and access supports at the school level, such as a designated liaison. Certainly, schools and districts have some control over the extent to which the McKinney-Vento regulations are implemented, and we can only hope that they err on the side of increased supports to this vulnerable population.
The Community Schools movement is another effort to help stabilize families and students in order to facilitate greater access to and success with educational opportunities. Partnerships with community organizations and agencies, as well as rich and mutual home-school relationships are ways in which community schools work to mitigate challenges and support students and families. For example, school-based coordinators can partner with and connect families to local organizations that focus on issues of housing and family stability, or they could spearhead efforts within the school to provide extra supports to students experiencing housing instability or homelessness.
All of these efforts are admirable and helpful. Yet, I still ask, "What more could schools possibly do?" Although schools can support their students and families and connect them to community resources, it is very difficult for schools to address root causes of complex issues like poverty or homelessness. I have seen some criticism that LeBron is being hailed as a hero while school districts that may want to support their students more comprehensively often do not have the funds to do so. I argue instead that no matter how much funding schools get, it is unlikely that they could ever provide a stabilizing intervention like the one that LeBron James just promised to the most vulnerable families at the I Promise School.
We should use this initiative of an example of what could happen if agencies worked together more effectively, if true efforts were made to alleviate the damages done by years of discriminatory policy, and if compassion -- not politics -- was what ruled collective decision-making in education and society. From an evaluator standpoint, LeBron has created a beautiful natural experiment. I do hope that there is research done to study the trajectories of these students and families, as they get settled in their new homes and later on in their lives. From a human standpoint, I am simply thankful that LeBron has chosen to use his personal money to make what I know is an immeasurable impact on the lives of these young people and their families.
The Structured Solutions Announcements page has been reimagined into an issue-centered blog to illuminate critical ideas and events that affect the schools, communities, and families that we serve. This is the first post of the new blog.
My husband and I recently finished watching the new Netflix documentary, Inside Bill's Brain. We both found Bill Gates' story to be fascinating and inspiring, impressed by how he and his wife have channeled their intellect, curiosity, and empathy into an idea generation machine -- The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- to solve the world's toughest problems. While I, of course, felt like I immediately needed to get off the couch and do something good for the world, I also found myself reflecting on how Bill Gates reached this point in his life.
In the documentary, Gates talks about the many opportunities that allowed him to become the computing prodigy that he is and was. I was immediately reminded of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which I had read many years before. Gladwell highlighted the incredible opportunities that Gates encountered in his early years that facilitated his exponential growth. Both Outliers and Inside Bill's Brain discuss the prestigious private school in which Gates was enrolled for his adolescent and teenage years, which allowed him to learn to code and develop programs in the school's computer lab ... in the 1960s. My Baltimore City Public Schools classroom in 2011 did not have any technology! Gladwell writes:
"We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that's the wrong lesson. Our world allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?"
Both the documentary and Gladwell's case study also highlight the resources into which Gates was born. Gates himself admits that his family was wealthy, and during his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, he had two professional, working parents. The documentary speaks in great detail to the power his mother had in the community, serving on boards and building an impressive network. Her connections were so impressive, in fact, that Gates shares how she forced him to meet with Warren Buffett and facilitated that connection for her son. My first thought was, "That is SOME social capital!"
The esteemed sociologist James Coleman discusses his theory of social capital in his 1988 "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." He explains that the resources and connections that people have access to through their close relationships and communities can have profound impacts on personal and professional outcomes. Examples of social capital might include community members sharing job opportunities with each other, elder family or community members connecting youth to an internship or mentor, or professional individuals serving as positive role models for others in their circles. In each of these scenarios, people have access to opportunities, exposure to new ideas and people, and the ability to see what they themselves could become. Now imagine what happens when none of these resources are present in the life of a child or young adult. Coleman suggests that without social capital, an individual's outcomes might look quite different: "Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that in its absence would not be possible."
Gates benefited a great deal from his sheer luck of being born into a family of means, but this certainly does not diminish his genius or impact on the world. However, the social capital he had access to in his youth had, without a doubt, an enormous impact on his success in life. As Gladwell muses, what about every other teenager? Don't they deserve the same opportunities and resources? If our most disadvantaged communities were rich with opportunity and home-grown role models and free from the oppression caused by centuries of systematic, legalized discrimination, we would only be able to imagine how many more Bill Gates the world would have.
This fall marked the third anniversary of Structured Solutions! Here is a recap of what we have done in our first three years:
Dr. Klein is honored to be highlighted by Johns Hopkins University's Alumni Weekend Committee as a featured alum, in honor of her 10th reunion! Click on the link below to view her feature:
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.