Helping Students Succeed, In High School and Beyond
Panorama engineers Geoffrey Litt and Sagar Jauhari and designer Roger Zhu partnered with Lucy Arthur-Paratley of Citizen Schools in Boston to design an app for eighth graders to help them choose a high school that is right for them. Lucy shares her thoughts about designing the app — “Lucky 8” — and why she’s hopeful that is helping students succeed in high school and after.
“Why do you want to go to that high school?,” I ask my eighth graders each fall. Here in Boston, applying to high school is akin to the college application process, so getting a list of schools nailed down early makes a big difference in helping students succeed in the process. In the fall of 2014, the most common answers to my question were focused on proximity to their home, a shrug of “my cousin goes there,” or some vague notion that it would prepare them for college. This fall, the answers were different.
“Well, it says that it has a 95% graduation rate.”
“I can see on the map that it is close to my house!”
“I want to go to college, and a lot of people go there from here.”
How did we go from high school placement conversations centered on speculation and hearsay to conversations grounded in data and evidence? How can we set students up to find the school that will increase their odds of finding success in high school and beyond?
My name is Lucy Arthur-Paratley, I am a teaching fellow with Citizen Schools, and I teach 8th graders at Orchard Gardens K-8 School. One of the classes I teach focuses on helping the 8th grade with their high school application process.
Last year, my eighth graders were using a hastily updated version of a 90-page pdf guidebook, photocopied and stapled. Although it has comprehensive data for all the schools in Boston, each school’s data wasn’t digestible, so students and parents struggled to get a feeling for the schools.
It was clear we needed better solution, so as the school year wound down I called a friend, one of Panorama Education’s longest-serving engineers. My friend brought along another engineer and a designer, who were both eager to help. Four long Saturdays later we had built a simple website: A Boston High School data catalog we call “Lucky 8.”
At the very beginning, our goal was to build a web page to replace our 90-page long booklet, but we also thought about the true users of our product: 8th grade students. They are full of the energy and confusion of early teenhood, fumbling their way through school and, for many of them, new lives in America because they are recent immigrants. They need informative tools full of color, images, and small chunks of information to help them digest the details.
After getting inspiration from Instagram, Teen Vogue (sigh), and Google’s online resources, we landed on a “card design solution” or set of boxes to display each school. Since the students use both mobile devices and Chromebooks, we designed the page to display nicely on both mobile and web platforms. During our long Saturday building sessions, I learned about “automated scraping,” dabbled in Github and shared the engineers’ obsession with data and “optimization.”
While I never imagined our guide would have a persona, but the folks at Panorama encouraged me to give a voice to Lucky. I landed on a character who is honest, encouraging, and a little bit sassy. “When you know better, you do better,” the figure eight character quips in the voice of a colleague with years of experience working with 8th graders.
“When you know better, you do better.”
— Lucky 8
That pearl of wisdom goes both ways; when students know more information, they can make better choices and when I know more about my students I can give them better guidance. There’s more to school selection than simply picking the school with the best graduation rate.
For example, one of my students, A, is very organized, studies really hard and has a track record of resilience. For her, I would recommend a school with high academic performance and high graduation rate, even if the school is on the other side of Boston. Because I know she will get up early and travel there every school day, no matter how much snow has fallen, and she will flourish in that school. At the same time, another student, B, might not be the right fit for that school; although he is smart and capable, commuting one hour to school would be a challenge for him, so I would recommend the school next to his home, although this school has a lower graduation rate. With it around the corner from his house, I know there is higher chance he will actually arrive at school on time every day, so this school will increase his odds of succeeding.
This idea is reflected in the voice of our character, Lucky.
“Where you go to high school impacts you and the odds that you will graduate and go on to college,” he reminds students on the landing page. “You can be successful at any school but picking the right school increases the odds that you’ll achieve your goals. Use this information, but it is still up to you to choose wisely and put in the work once you get to high school.”
— Lucky 8
Here lies the limitation of the product: it does not guarantee results and it requires human input. Each student is unique and will interact with a school differently, which in turn impacts the paths that he or she can take. Even with all the hard data in hand, the odds of student success and the optimal path for a student can be hard to pin down. This can only become more clear from conversations with my students and their families. Instead of replacing counselors and mentors, this website supports our work, which continues well beyond “starring” a list of interest schools.
Changing the Conversation
It is too early to tell whether this “Lucky 8” will lead to dramatically different high school placements for our eighth graders and much too early to tell what the long-term impact will be.
I already see important shifts in the conversations I have with my students about the process. Finding evidence to support their high school choices has become obvious to my students; instead of relying on rumors, they use the website we built to turn the application process into the domain of data.
— Lucy Arthur-Paratley
This website has not obviated the need for guidance, for conversations, for parent input. But it has helped to empower, promote and facilitate students’ receiving that guidance, having those conversations, and parents’ asking pointed questions and expecting better answers. My students are approaching the high school application process more analytically, which is a skill we want them to build regardless of the high school they attend.
Next fall, the inaugural class of users will start high school at a school chosen with the help of a sassy, encouraging little app called Lucky 8. I’m optimistic that Lucky 8 will help increase their odds of succeeding in high school and beyond.