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Summer Fellows Lab Convenes

Institutional research practitioners who participate in the Summer Fellows Lab hosted by Maret are trailblazing ways to crunch the numbers, analyze the data, and support their communities in leveraging it effectively. 

While institutional research is a common practice at colleges and universities, who are often required to report for funding and compliance purposes, the use of data to drive progress and improvement in independent schools is a newer concept and one that is gaining more interest and investment. In 2020, Maret was awarded an Educational Leadership Grant from the Edward E. Ford Foundation to support ongoing research initiatives at Maret and to formalize the network that Director of Institutional Research Eric Heilman had been building for three years. Now, the Center for Institutional Research in Independent Schools (CIRIS) connects Maret to almost 100 independent schools.

CIRIS exists to support institutional research practitioners as they help schools collect, analyze, and operationalize data to fulfill their missions. It aims to bring those responsible for research out of isolation and into collaboration, thus “uniting the energy, enthusiasm, and expertise people around the country have for these topics,” according to Mr. Heilman.       

The Summer Lab Experience

At the heart of CIRIS is the Summer Fellows Lab to which a small cohort of institutional research practitioners is invited to work jointly around a specific topic area. This summer, the focus was on research initiatives exploring “Admissions, Strategic Marketing, and Enrollment Management.” Projects that aligned with these topics included identifying new sources of potential applicants through geographic or psychographic analysis, developing predictive models of the admissions funnel, analyzing attrition patterns, and creating probabilistic enrollment models to aid in long-term budgeting.

The first two years of the Summer Lab were run virtually because of COVID but attracted a core group of dedicated participants from across the country who creatively found ways to collaborate online. In 2020, researchers discussed “Designing Measures of Holistic Experience for Students.” In 2021, the topic was “Measuring Equity and Inclusion in School Communities.” Both of these were in response to trends percolating throughout the independent school community.

For me the highlights have been meeting people all over the country who are doing this kind of work. They are brilliant and funny and super generous with their time.”—Eric Heilman

Over the course of the year, Mr. Heilman listens carefully during quarterly gatherings sponsored by CIRIS to see what pressing topics and issues are on members’ minds. The Summer Lab project topic is released in February along with the application. Selected participants join the cohort with a concrete project plan and work collaboratively to complete their projects over the course of several months. In the spring, cohort members identify goals for that year, consult with each other for advice, and compile the data sets necessary to advance the project. In late June, all cohort members gather for the three-day work session hosted by Maret. Travel and hotel expenses are covered by CIRIS, and fellows receive a stipend.

One reason for this year’s focus on admissions, enrollment, and marketing is that the pandemic has had a major impact on these areas. Some schools have had a bump in applications. The financial situation of families and the profile of those asking for aid have changed. With testing becoming optional, there is now information on the impact of that decision on student experience and achievement.

Since schools have often gathered this type of data already, participants come ready to leverage it in collaboration with other like-minded administrators and faculty. The Summer Lab offers focused space, time, and the valuable resource of knowledgeable collaborators to ensure institutional researchers can implement projects during the upcoming school year.

Building Community and Capacity

Schools have many reasons for starting institutional research programs. Leveraging the quantitative and qualitative data that is collected can help schools better align with their mission, build consensus, support students and families, and remain competitive in a rapidly changing educational market. School leaders and faculty may be reassured that they are providing the program they aspire to deliver or take more concrete steps to do so. At this point, well-coordinated research programs may still feel like a luxury, but Mr. Heilman thinks they will become a necessity for schools wanting to remain knowledgeable about and responsive to their communities.

Another important aspect of program and community building within schools is ensuring that the data collected is shared transparently and used to drive decision-making. This requires fostering a community that is data literate and able to make positive decisions based on the findings. Some of the results can be challenging for communities to process, and courageous conversations may be needed. However, if the end goal is to improve programming with a focus on students, research and data are strong allies.

The CIRIS Network

Mr. Heilman draws from the expertise of the CIRIS network to design meaningful professional development and programming throughout the year. Following the Summer Lab, participants will continue to support each other and can connect with the larger network through quarterly sessions offered on topics such as data infrastructure, Google Data Studio, designing projects, and strategies for delivering results.

CIRIS has also established a partnership with the Association of Technology Leaders in Independent School (ATLIS). Last May, former Summer Lab participants were among the presenters of an innovative series of targeted workshops at the ATLIS 2022: Ignited Annual Conference.

As CIRIS leads the way in institutional research networking and professional development, the Summer Lab serves as a launching pad for participants to collaborate on inspiring projects, share what they know, learn from others, and make a powerful and positive impact.