On the 42nd floor of Manhattan’s former IBM building, Bain Capital’s quiet, well-stocked conference room looks out on a cold, rainy midtown hidden by clouds. When Ryan Cotton appears at the door, the space is transformed. Just back in town after another long, food-deprived flight, Ryan tosses his bag into a corner, rips open some chips and slips into a bright red City Year jacket. Despite the jetlag, Ryan Cotton is filled with enthusiasm, fired up and ready to talk about one of his foremost passions --- data.

As a Managing Director at Bain Capital, one of the world’s leading private investment firms and a longstanding City Year supporter, Ryan leads their North American consumer, travel, leisure and hospitality, and real estate investment efforts. TOMS Shoes, Canada Goose, and a new luxury cruise line with Richard Branson and Virgin comprise his latest deals. He also serves as a Board Member of City Year New York, where he is Chair of the Red Jacket Society.

He became aware of City Year when he moved to Boston after receiving his MBA from Stanford.  He saw City Year’s red jackets all over the city. Once he joined Bain Capital, he learned more about the organization, which led him to get involved. Ultimately, it was City Year’s belief in mentoring, focus on education, and a data-based approach that led him to invest. That City Year provides near peer mentors at exactly the right moment in a student’s life resonates with Ryan. Growing up in Texas, he had his own “big village” of people who had mentored him.

City Year’s focus on education is very much in line with his belief that education is an equalizer. “There are so many social problems, so many things that we’re trying to address from crime and drug dependence to unemployment, income inequality, class mobility - all sorts of domestic challenges.  When you really start to analyze any one of those, you realize that education is the silver bullet that gets to the root of it.  With solving one crisis you can solve a number of downstream crises.  It seems to me that if you’re going to start investing in people, investing in America, investing in our future, you have to do that at the educational level because it solves all the symptoms that come later.”

What he is most animated about is City Year’s use of data. “We at Bain Capital live data. We just dig and dig and dig until we find the data that gives you conviction to lean into an investment.  That’s what City Year does, too.”  He appreciates City Year’s approach: “Let’s measure, let’s refine, let’s continually improve, and let’s do so in a data-driven way.”

“There is a relentless improvement philosophy that I really like about City Year. It is a continual journey to find the next better version of City Year.” – Ryan Cotton

And Ryan also touts that City Year’s data-based approach is generating results. A recent third party study of its impact found that schools that partner with City Year were two-to-three times more likely to improve school-wide proficiency rates in English Language Arts and math than schools with similar demographic and performance profiles. (See it covered in EDUCATION WEEK, “City Year Schools Twice as Likely to See Math, English Boosts, Study Finds,” June 9, 2015.)

Well-versed in City Year’s methodology, Ryan points to a study by Johns Hopkins University that shows students who are at risk of dropping out can be identified as early as elementary school, using three early warning indicators (EWI).  City Year refers to these as the ABCs: A, poor attendance; B, disruptive behavior; and C, course failure in math and English.  A student who shows just one of these signs as early as sixth grade has only a 25% percent chance of graduating high school on time with their peers. However, if a student reaches the 10th grade on track and on time, he or she has a 75% chance of graduating.  

“The notion that you keep a student on track and on time through the ninth grade and they have a three times greater chance of graduating on time is incredible.” says Ryan, who finds data like this to be impossible to argue with.

Newtown High School in the Elmhurst section of Queens, one of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods, is a massive structure that covers an entire city block. It sits prominently among crowded houses, thriving bodegas, and Korean eateries.  Established in 1897, it was built in the Flemish Renaissance Revival style, a throwback to the Dutch founders of the city. The stone face castle-like building is complete with stepped gables and a 169-foot tower with four turrets and a cupola.  

Inside, the classrooms tell the story of an era long ago. The woodwork is hand-crafted, the windows massive and the ceilings 15 feet high. As homage to its roots, the school has maintained some of the original brass doorknobs.

The history isn’t merely in the building. Many prominent graduates once walked the hallways: cosmetic giant Estee Lauder, comedian Don Rickles, NY Stock Exchange President Richard Grasso, actress Zoe Saldana, Mezzo-Soprano opera star Rise Stevens, actor Carol O’Connor, rocker Gene Simmons, a New York Supreme Court Justice and several NBA players, among many others.

In the past, Newtown students always came from the neighborhood, which in the 1950’s was primarily Greek, Italian and Jewish. Today, the nearly 2,000 students comprise a broader mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds, with more than 60% identifying as Hispanic or Latino and nearly a quarter identifying as Asian-American.  Twenty-eight percent are English Language Learners.  While many of Newtown’s students come from the local borough of Queens, some students commute more than 90 minutes each way – from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

On a recent rainy Tuesday, a dozen ninth grade teachers and a few City Year AmeriCorps members come into a classroom, open up their laptops, and talk among themselves as they prepare for their weekly Early Warning Indicator (EWI) meeting. As the meeting begins, their attention turns to their screens as they scan student data for lack of progress, behavior challenges, and flags. In all the rows and rows of data, they hunt for what might be impacting their students’ performance, and discuss what they can do about it. Their goal is to make sure no student is off-track, or becomes invisible.

EWI meetings are held every Tuesday and are attended by ninth grade teachers, City Year AmeriCorps Members, Communities in Schools and John’s Hopkins Talent Development Secondary.

Today’s EWI meeting examines six students, one at a time. The meeting leader presents an overview of the student, hones in on their attendance rate, the number of classes missed, homework, grades, and any behavior issues, and then opens it up to discussion. The goal is to set a plan to support the student and eventually get them off the focus list.

City Year AmeriCorps members play a unique role in EWI meetings.  Because of the “near peer” nature of their role and the time they spend with students every day in the classroom, the lunchroom and through afterschool, City Year AmeriCorps members are privy to valuable insight into the students’ lives.  For example, it was a corps member who figured out that one student who needed tutoring never went to afterschool because his mother needed him to care for his younger siblings until she got home from work. This then offers teachers insight into the things that may be negatively impacting that student’s performance in their classroom. 

This morning, ninth grade Math teacher Jennifer Hanley sits up front. After considering cultural anthropology, she built a career in children’s library science and then taught college before getting certified as a Special Education teacher. Now she’s qualified to teach all the core classes, but prefers math and science. She’s had City Year in her classroom her entire public school teaching career, three years.

Further to the back, amid a group of City Year AmeriCorps members, sits Rukhshana Tuli, who grew up in the neighborhood. After college, she came back to serve with City Year. She was placed in Newtown High for her service year, continued with another year as Team Leader, and for the last two years, has served as the City Year Impact Manager. She’s proud of her community, her school and her services. She believes that it’s a good way to show current students that it’s good to give back. Having grown up in this neighborhood also helps her understand and empathize with the needs of the community and its students.

One large part of Rukhshana’s role is to review student data including grades, attendance, and behavior issues. These data points help determine who will be placed on the focus list and why. It’s her job to continually consult with teachers like Ms. Hanley and the principal.

The hour they spent together this morning has given them the opportunity to discuss over a half a dozen students, share their knowledge of those students’ performance, and assign champions who will help guide these students to get back on track.

In Newton High School, there are nine City Year AmeriCorps members, one Team Leader, and one Impact Manager. Each supports English Language Arts, math, science and social studies classes, and specializes in two-to-four subjects.  The corps members provide academic and social emotional supports to the entire class. Additionally, each corps member has a focus list of between 10 and 15 students who are selected to receive additional support, such as one-on-one tutoring.  

The City Year team also offers school-wide activities. Each day starts with a morning greeting, which welcomes students to school. They also produce a regular parents’ newsletter to keep them up to date about all of City Year’s activities. During spring break, the team hosts a Leadership Academy, which offers academic support and leadership training. They also conduct student tours to area colleges and businesses, including Columbia University and Microsoft, a City Year sponsor.

City Year AmeriCorps member Parth Patel is a thoughtful, soft-spoken New Jersey native who plans to attend medical school after his service year.  Only a few months into his service, he continually works with Rukhshana to track and interpret student progress so that he can adjust his efforts based on his students’ needs. Parth lights up whenever he talks about them, especially when he talks about Adam.

“I don’t want to make a mistake. I just don’t like it when I make a mistake. But with City Year, I’m like ah….so that’s how you do it!” – Adam, Newtown High School freshman

In his short time, Parth has developed a relationship with Adam*, whose grades and test scores from eighth grade placed him on Parth’s focus list for both math and English Language Arts.  Adam, who has a secret passion for reptiles, never raises his hand in class and is very quiet.  Parth enjoys bonding with him through their shared sense of humor. Parth’s calm and relaxed style in class works well to help Adam stay focused and learn.


Though his relationship with Adam is still new and Parth describes it as a “work in progress,” it has given him his most rewarding moments as a corps member. One area Parth is especially proud of is Adam’s performance in math where he more than doubled a test grade, going from a 34 to an 80, as a result of their tutoring sessions. Another was when Adam correctly answered a question about binomials, a subject he had been studying with Parth, when called on by the teacher.

Parth works with Ms. Hanley’s last period. A large class with 35 students, it has the energy of teenagers ready to bounce out of school. Ms. Hanley has to put a lot of time into behavior management with this class, and finds Parth a “huge, huge help.” She always enjoys having City Year in her classroom and counts on tapping corps members to serve as sounding boards and to debrief with her after classes.

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Rukhshana works closely with Parth to understand his students’ academic and social and emotional learning needs. They do this by reviewing with student performance data.  “I meet with corps members on a bi-weekly basis for a data check-in where we talk about how much time they’re getting with their students, what progress they’re seeing, and changes they need to make.”  With these insights, corps members prepare to have interventions and choose which content to focus on with which student, like Parth working with Adam on binomials.

Rukhshana is devoted to helping her City Year AmeriCorps team at Newtown achieve progress with their students. She doesn’t want any student to slip through the cracks. She sees the value in near-peer mentoring and reflects back to her older brother. He was once a student at Newtown High School when there weren't any City Year AmeriCorps members. Her brother had a tough time making it to graduation. “I used to always think … what if he had a mentor that he just looked up to, and he could speak to, or could connect with him? It may have been a lot better.” Eventually, he joined the Air Force, which helped him build a very successful life.

Through City Year’s school database, Rukhshana can not only see Parth’s focus list student progress, but her whole focus list portfolio.  With this information readily on hand, she can ensure her team is applying their training correctly and that each student is being served effectively.

“Rukhshana talks about data all the time and I think it is super valuable. There’s no other way,” says Parth. “It’s great to have a database where we can input data and be able to look back at what we’ve done.” Parth’s plan for life after City Year includes a career in medicine. Based on his experience as a City Year AmeriCorps member, he’s now considering ways to incorporate teaching into his career, possibly seeking out teaching hospital opportunities.

Parth is not the only one Rukhshana has shown the value of tracking and analyzing student data. She spends a lot of time helping to build a balanced understanding of data among her team.  “If we’re really invested in the students’ long-term success, and we want them to be incredible adults who can make their own decisions and can choose whatever they want to do, then our approach has to be a lot more than day to day, friendly conversation.  That will last through that one day, but you’re not building any long-lasting skills {in the student}.  You only do that through evaluation of your work.”  

After working with so many students during her years at Newtown, Rukhshana knows the benefit of tracking student progress, but also is convinced that "data is a means to an end.  It is not an end in itself. Data is a tool that helps to effect change."

Rukhshana, Parth, and teachers like Ms. Hanley are supported by Principal John Ficalora, who was also a student at Newtown High School decades ago. Once he finished college he came back as a student teacher, which led to his career as a math teacher, administrator and now as principal. He details a long list of everything City Year does for Newtown High School from in-class support and teacher appreciation days to after school tutoring, report card conferencing and Morning Greeting.

“I think City Year has made a big difference for our students. “They’re changing people’s lives in ways they don’t realize.”
– Principal John Ficalora

“There’s no magic wand, but [City Year is] doing what we don’t do.  It’s not that we don’t do it because we don’t know it exists, or we don’t do it because we don’t care. But we don’t do it because it’s just not possible to do everything. There are 170 kids [per teacher] and it doesn’t necessarily get done. City Year adds this extra person who is not just able to do it, but cares about doing it.”

Mr. Ficalora remembers when he was a boy going to Newtown, his parents reviewed his report card with him and “praised me where I should be praised, and encouraged me where I needed that.” Similar practices are in place today.  After each report card, every student at Newtown meets with an adult from the school to discuss their scores.  The participating adults at these Report Card Conferences can be a teacher, administrator, guidance counselor, or City Year AmeriCorps member.

Throughout a two-day period, all students come to the school library with their report card and get paired with an adult.  The adult talks with them about their scores and together they set goals for the next marking period in six to eight weeks. The plan might call for the student to make an extra effort to come to school on time, or to go to tutoring. At the next report card conference, they’ll measure the student’s progress against that plan. This experience enables students to look at their own data and learn how to use it as a tool for their own success.

Mr. Ficalora sits at the head of a large conference table under the gaze of an antique grandfather clock given to the school as a gift back when it was the most accurate time-keeping technology. Over the years, he has gotten used to the pendulum swinging inside the clock tower, setting off a chime sequence every quarter hour. He points out an architectural model of the school done by students, complete with “We Tower Above the Rest,” the school motto.

Now in its 118th year, Newtown High School has always been an anchor for the local community, serving as a beacon of progress and hope to local students and their families. “We’re always thinking of new ways to try to improve what we’re doing,” affirms Mr. Ficalora.

This year marks the school’s fifth year of partnership with City Year. “I believe that City Year does make a big difference,” he says sincerely, noting remarkable progress last year when there was a 68% reduction in students failing English and math. “They’re changing people’s lives in ways they don’t realize.”  

* Name changed to protect privacy.