The following is an excerpt from The Philanthropy Roundtable guidebook: Catholic School Renaissance: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Strengthening a National Asset
Los Angeles is home to one of the country’s largest Catholic school communities, and a generous network of supporters. But as in many cities, funders rarely gathered for open conversations about successes and challenges in their Catholic school giving. That changed recently when representatives from over 20 local philanthropies met to see if there were areas where they could accomplish more by working together. Participants included the Carrie Estelle Doheny, Specialty family, Conrad Hilton, and Riordan foundations, and by the close of their first meeting they had identified two top priorities: school data transparency and governance.
One of the major improvements in public schooling over the past two decades has been the publication of comparable statistics on student achievement and other measures of the functioning of individual schools. New report cards have enlightened parents and policymakers and spurred much needed change. Similar systems for Catholic schools could prove very useful in encouraging excellence and accountability.
For this reason, and because it seemed more quickly achievable, the L.A. donors zeroed in on data transparency. They first sought to develop a shared definition of “transparency.” One of the biggest lessons, explains Sister Rosemarie Nassif of the Hilton Foundation, was that “we weren’t all talking about the same thing when we said ‘transparency’…the ‘aha’ moment came when we defined it the same way.”
Now with a shared focus, the group approached the Department of Catholic Schools and Superintendent Kevin Baxter, who, as it turned out, was planning a major overhaul to the way the archdiocese produced school data. Baxter was eager to collaborate, but he and his team needed assistance. Identifying what information was most valuable—and reasonably obtainable—would require careful cooperation, as well as an IT infrastructure that could handle the increasingly complex data streams.
With the help of a facilitator, the group agreed to create “data snapshots” for each elementary school, tracking the two key performance areas of student achievement and financial health. Each area has a set of performance indicators to measure whether a school is meeting established benchmarks. For instance, the academics section includes reading and math proficiency, as well as student growth on standardized assessments. Snapshots also provide general information like demographics, enrollment trends, and parental satisfaction rates.
All parties agreed that this format would provide much-needed understanding and openness, though at present the findings are only distributed to schools and funders. Down the road, many of the group’s donors hope this type of information may be shared with parents and the general public. They understand the importance of quietly getting this first step right, though, and maintaining fruitful collaboration.
In total, the process that led to the Los Angeles data snapshots cost less than $100,000, a remarkably small investment for a treasure-trove of information. Donors had been frustrated for years by the absence of accessible school data, but it wasn’t until they worked together that they were able to make progress. This is an example of the power of philanthropists to spur important change. Funders in other cities may want to consider similar collaborative efforts to improve Catholic school data reporting and transparency.