School Profile C: Charlie High School

Charlie High School is located in a midsize American city and has been in operation for more than 50 years. Charlie High currently serves approximately 1,000 students and is one of the most racially diverse schools in the region. Charlie High is well-known across the community for having dedicated staff and a welcoming atmosphere; however, the school population has been changing over the past several years to include more students who are homeless, recently arrived immigrants, or over-age and under-credited. Nearly all students currently enrolled come from lower socio-economic households and face challenges related to inter-generational poverty, educational attainment, and racial discrimination. Charlie High is housed in an outdated building with many failing facilities, and although the school is due to move into a newly renovated building, this move has been frequently delayed. Students attending Charlie High come from all over the city, though most students live within a 45-minute bus commute in the morning. Many students come to Charlie High after dropping or failing out of a previous high school, yet Charlie High is not an alternative high school and has many traditional students (e.g., those without schooling interruptions, those on-track to graduate on time) as well.

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Part 1: Developing a Problem Statement

Charlie High began the root cause analysis process by convening the school leadership team for a half-day session focused on analyzing data, identifying one core problem1 to address, and crafting a problem statement. The school leadership team for Charlie High is quite large, including the principal, assistant principals, and grade-level team leads; these staff were joined by a district comprehensive support and improvement (CSI) specialist and external facilitators with expertise in root cause analysis trained by the district. All of the school leadership team members had been working together for more than 3 years and had a lively, frank, and open rapport with each other. To set the tone for the meeting, the expert facilitators emphasized that their objective throughout the root cause analysis process would be solutions oriented, recognizing that their staff work hard and want success for their students. Next, the expert facilitators asked that as part of introductions, staff each share the story of their school and what that means for where they are today, as a school identified for CSI. In these introductions, staff shared many key pieces of information about Charlie High, including the following:

  • For the last several decades, Charlie High has offered 13 different career and technical education (CTE) pathways yet maintains the “feel” of a traditional high school for both students and teachers.
  • The student body is very diverse, with more than 30 different nationalities represented and a rapidly growing English-learner (EL) and recently arrived immigrant population (from under 10% of the student population to nearly half the student population).
  • The school has relatively high rates of parent engagement and student attendance compared with other low-performing high schools, but there is still room for improvement.
  • The staff at Charlie High tend to be close-knit, passionate, and dedicated. There is a positive sense of school culture and trust in leadership.
  • There is a mix of experienced and novice staff, but school leaders still give teachers lots of autonomy and support.

Staff expressed frustration and disappointment about being identified for CSI given their substantial efforts over the past several years to make improvements. Staff were transparent in their frustration about Charlie High being identified as CSI because of its low graduation rate, which they felt was outside of their control given district policies about open enrollment. In short, staff believed that the dramatic influx of over-age and under-credited students (especially ELs and recently arrived immigrants) was responsible for a lowered graduation rate that led to CSI identification. Staff believed that they were collectively working as hard as they could and that their identification was unfair. One staff member shared that they felt “inundated with students unable to graduate on-time” and that “being identified as CSI felt like a slap in the face after all their years of hard work.” However, staff also expressed that having additional funds to support improvements would be helpful and committed to striving for continuous improvement. Likewise, staff committed to reviewing school data and determining challenges through discovery.

Describing the School “Data Story”

To begin the root cause analysis process, staff worked in small groups to analyze school performance data with a prompt from the expert facilitators to look for areas “where the graduation rate issue shows up” in the data. The school performance data included the school report card in addition to needs-assessment data and school performance on district reading and math assessments. Staff noticed several key data points, which are shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Charlie High’s “Data Story”

Student Academic Performance Student Population and Engagement Policy and Leadership
  • Students read between a third- to fourth-grade level on average; while some students read on or near grade level, many read at a Kindergarten or 1st grade level.
  • Approximately one-third of students are proficient in reading or mathematics.
  • 37% of incoming students from this year were proficient in English.
  • 48% of students from this year graduated on-time.
  • 67% of students are chronically absent.
  • In the last 3 years, there have been increases in the number of identified:
    • homeless students (29-33%)
    • students with disabilities (16-17%, with many more not formally identified)
  • Many incoming students have a history of disrupted education.
  • Recently arrived immigrant students used to be unable to matriculate to the next grade in the year they arrive, which extended their graduation rate by a year automatically. Now that this policy has changed, recently arrived immigrants who are not significantly below grade level may matriculate to the next grade on time even if they arrive mid-year.
  • The new district mathematics course progression has students switch between subjects (e.g., algebra to geometry to statistics), which exacerbates some students’ learning challenges.
  • There are no remediation resources for junior or senior students.

Facilitation Best Practice

Many staff expressed discomfort with not being able to be “efficient” by jumping straight to solutions. The expert facilitators encouraged staff time to preview their thoughts around underlying causes or solutions while keeping the activities moving quickly.

Staff were familiar with the school data and were unsurprised by the data points, yet the process of crafting the data story was emotional and challenging, sparking several debates among staff. For example, one staff member reflected that, based on the data, “The kids aren’t learning―they’re dropping out,” while another staff member countered that “Kids are learning! They’re moving from third-grade to seventh-grade reading levels in one year!” while yet another interjected that “Kids are chronically absent―that’s our issue.” One of the key points of discomfort in the process of creating the Charlie High “Data Story” stemmed from making connections between the data and the perspectives of staff about being identified for CSI based on low graduation rates. One staff member felt uncomfortable simply blaming district enrollment policies, saying, “I don’t want to rely on statistical magic” (i.e., changing which students “count” towards graduation rates) in determining whether they are successful or not. However, other staff members expressed a firm belief that “statistical magic is our issue,” specifically “what gets reported to the state.” In the end, staff came to consensus that as a whole they “don’t want to just make the numbers look beautiful―we want to serve these kids, too.” Staff shared that the process of looking at data together, while stressful, was beneficial because it helped them shift from an “it’s our fault” mentality to an “it’s a problem we need to solve together” mentality.

Identifying Data Themes

Once staff were able to describe the Charlie High “Data Story” they considered how important and feasible it would be to address each of the data points, which allowed them to narrow down which data points to prioritize in the root cause analysis process. Staff discussed the following themes and insights behind the data:

  • Teachers feel pressure to put interventions in place but have limited resources to support students.
  • Teachers feel pressure to promote students to the next grade level regardless of proficiency.
  • Staff believe that district policies have made Charlie High into a “dumping ground” for over-age and under-credited students; because these students have a low possibility of graduating on time from Charlie High, students become disengaged, skipping school or dropping out.
  • Although student attendance is low, this challenge may extend beyond what school staff can impact because it is closely tied to many students’ economic realities. Many students support their families through a variety of formal or informal jobs outside of school, often missing school to earn money for basic necessities.
  • Many recently arrived immigrant students are dealing with trauma and need more holistic supports than the school alone can provide.

Key Challenge Identified

Given the significant increase in ELs and recently arrived immigrants with significant learning and personal needs, school staff do not have the capacity or resources to help students graduate on time.

Next, staff worked to identify which of these themes reflected the “priority problem” they could work to address, considering the importance and feasibility of the potential work. Overwhelmingly, staff agreed that enrollment of over-age and under-credit students was the core issue behind their low performance. However, some staff members reflected that while Charlie High has had many over-age and under-credited students enrolled in the past, the significant increase in ELs and recently arrived immigrants better explains the changes in their data. This insight about the change in student population sparked a deep discussion about student needs, resources, and changes over time. Staff expressed that they cannot control the change in population or turn students away, yet it is nearly impossible for teachers to support these students to graduate on time. In the end, staff recognized that having resources associated with CSI identification may help them better support students and improve other data points (such as attendance or student proficiency in reading and math), even if they are not able to make significant changes in graduation rates due to external factors. Staff shared that CSI funds would make it possible for them to offer additional supports, including health and community supports or intervention staff for low-performing students.

Crafting the Problem Statement

With the key challenge (i.e., limited resources for students and a changing school population) identified, staff worked to further refine this challenge and describe it in a problem statement to drive the remainder of the root cause analysis process, which would take place in a separate meeting with a broader group of stakeholders. The expert facilitators stressed that because the problem statement would be the first entry point for the broader group, it was critical that the problem statement be easily understandable at face value and specific (i.e., not too broad to fully analyze during the root cause analysis process). The expert facilitators also clarified that focusing the problem statement now would not limit Charlie High to using CSI funds for one particular student subgroup or for specific supports; therefore, there was no risk in being specific in the problem statement (e.g., focusing on ELs versus being generic).

Facilitation Best Practice

The expert facilitators provided the group with several example problem statements as a model, which helped the group quickly refine the problem statement and include the right level of specificity without extensive discussion time.

Given the large group size and the varying perspectives around the core “problem” on which to focus, the group split into pairs to develop draft problem statements, then combined problem statements in two larger groups, and then came together as a whole group to share, discuss, and develop a final problem statement. The expert facilitators emphasized that the problem statement should describe (a) the gap between current and desired performance and (b) the “biggest bang for the buck” problem(s) rather than problems Charlie High cannot hope to significantly address in the next years.

After their initial work in pairs and then in two larger groups, staff developed two working problem statements:

  1. Multiple data sources indicate that a high percentage of ELs and recently arrived immigrants are not on track to meet graduation requirements.
  2. Multiple data sources indicate that a high percentage of our students exhibit a high mobility rate and chronic absenteeism, which negatively impacts graduation rates.

These two draft problem statements illustrated that although staff had a shared understanding and agreement about overall challenges, there was not yet consensus about how to focus the problem statement. Some staff members expressed that they needed a “whole-school” approach to improvement because challenges with mobility and readiness for graduation apply to nearly all students, not just a subset of the population. However, other staff members stressed that although all students share these challenges, focusing on ELs and recently arrived immigrants presents a problem they can positively address at the school level (given that they cannot change district enrollment policies). Some staff members also stressed that ELs and recently arrived immigrants often have the greatest challenges with attendance, mobility, and academic proficiency; in addition, these staff recounted the meetings or other events where they have raised or discussed increased challenges with ELs and recently arrived immigrants, noting that this problem is not something they’ve only just realized in the root cause analysis process. Finally, staff recognized that their data show that the recent demographic shifts directly align with changes in graduation rates.

In the end, staff came to consensus that services targeting ELs and recently arrived immigrants could benefit all students across the school. Although district policies may have been a factor in Charlie High being identified as CSI, the school improvement funds available as a CSI school can be controlled at the school level and allocated for all students in need. Staff agreed that the problem statement should focus primarily on ELs because they are the student group that presents the greatest challenges and because this group also includes nearly all recently arrived immigrants. Staff also felt it was important to reference enrollment policies in the problem statement, noting that although these challenges are most pressing for the rising EL population, they apply to many other students at Charlie High.

Charlie High Problem Statement

A high percentage of ELs are not on track to meet graduation requirements due to contributing factors (e.g., chronic absenteeism) coupled with a high rate of over-age and under-credited students enrolled by the district.

In the closing reflection, staff shared that the process of analyzing data and developing the problem statement elicited strong, personal emotions about race and identity across the room. For example, the principal shared that their own racial identity (black) was a significant factor in their dedication to the students, families, and school community; therefore, the pivot to focusing primarily on Hispanic ELs felt like “turning our backs on our black students who have the same needs.” Although the focus on ELs was uncomfortable for some, staff were able to overcome this tension by sharing some of their personal feelings with the group as a whole. Most significantly, staff expressed that receiving affirmations from each other about their dedication to serving all students (even if their root cause analysis work was targeted) helped them feel comfortable with their problem statement moving forward.

Overarching Facilitation Best Practices

Throughout the process to analyze school data and develop a problem statement, the expert facilitators used several facilitation approaches to keep the conversation productive and focused:

  • Focusing on one challenge felt uncomfortable for staff who were hesitant to neglect any aspects of student learning. In response, the expert facilitators emphasized that although it was important for their CSI plan to identify targeted improvements, their day-to-day improvement efforts were likely to be more holistic in practice. This reassurance set many staff at ease and led to productive discussions.
  • Some staff expressed concerns that by presenting a specific challenge they would be limited in how they could use CSI funds; again, the expert facilitators clarified that having a narrow problem statement would not limit how they would be allowed to use funds to promote improvement more broadly.
  • When the discussion veered into speculation, the expert facilitators would ask staff about which data point led to their observation, keeping the conversation grounded in the data at hand.
  • The expert facilitators previewed the different parts of the root cause analysis process so that they could stay grounded in their current step of the root cause analysis process. When leadership team members were identifying data themes and crafting the problem statement, for example, they knew that they would be able to further analyze causes during the upcoming “five whys” activity, which helped deter the group from engaging in analysis or identifying solutions too soon.
  • The expert facilitators interjected at key points in the discussions to summarize the arguments or decision points on the table, which helped move the conversation forward quickly.

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Part 2: Identifying Causes

A few days after the meeting to craft the problem statement, the Charlie High leadership team reconvened along with a broader group of stakeholders, including a group of teachers in addition to those already on the leadership team, the school counselor, the student class president, and partners from community organizations. The first meeting with the leadership team staff had been relatively short, but this meeting with the broader stakeholder group was scheduled for most of the day to allow adequate time for discussion and collaborative decision-making.

Orientation and Review

To kick off the meeting, the leadership team members reviewed the problem statement they developed with the larger group and the key considerations and discussion points that led them to this point in the process. Several participants expressed concerns about narrowing their focus or neglecting students not classified as ELs in the problem statement, which members of the leadership team countered by sharing more details about their own concerns and the decision-making process. One member of the leadership team clarified the purpose of the problem statement with the group, saying that “The problem statement is not about every problem we have; it’s something we can focus on to improve our graduation rate.” However, many members of the leadership team and other stakeholders continued to emphasize that they felt uncomfortable focusing on just one group of students. The group discussed how they have a longstanding culture of “serving all children,” which contributed to the discomfort.

Facilitation Best Practice

The expert facilitators did not try to change the mindsets of dissenting participants in the meeting time allotted; rather, they pushed the group toward an acceptable compromise without neglecting key data points.

After a lengthy discussion, a few participants noted that some of the discomfort from staff might stem from more than just a desire to serve all students. These participants noted that many teachers at Charlie High frequently disregard ELs, using language indicating that they don’t believe that they belong in the community. These participants also noted that other teachers, while more welcoming of ELs in general, have expressed a frustration that they are in their classrooms, saying that they are not “their” students because they require intervention supports the teachers are not equipped to provide. This sparked further debate in the group: some participants expressed a belief that ELs were not a significant part of their population, yet others countered by pulling out and displaying specific data points showing the changes in population and its correlation with changes in Charlie High’s graduation rates over time, noting that they had just enrolled five new EL students that week. Some participants also emphasized how the shifting population requires many of their staff to shift their mindset about what their school community looks like, who belongs in their classrooms, and what their roles are as educators serving their community.

In the end, the group was divided over whether to include ELs in the problem statement, with approximately half of the participants expressing major concerns about potentially neglecting students not classified as ELs and the other half emphasizing that they need to focus on data-driven challenges. Finally, the group agreed to pay particular attention to ELs in the conversations moving forward, but to remove the term “ELs” from the problem statement to put specific participants at ease. The revised problem statement read “A high percentage of Charlie High students are not on track to meet graduation requirements due to contributing factors (e.g., chronic absenteeism) coupled with a high rate of over-age and under-credited students enrolled by the district.” Returning to their “Data Story” from the previous meeting, the group reflected that their objective in the root cause analysis process is to identify how they can improve their graduation rate, which they must improve to exit CSI status. Despite previous hesitations, the group agreed that to meaningfully impact the Charlie High graduation rate, they would have to place some special focus on ELs in the next activity: identifying causal factors.

Identifying Causal Factors

After identifying the primary problem to analyze through the root cause analysis process (i.e., developing the problem statement), the next step of the process was to identify the possible reasons behind the problem (i.e., the causal factors). The group began identifying potential causal factors for the problem statement through silent brainstorming time, writing each one down on a self-adhesive note and placing it on a large whiteboard. The expert facilitators stressed that through this process, the group should (a) avoid blame, (b) avoid naming solutions, and (c) focus on what is under their control at the school level (e.g., disregard district enrollment policies for now). The group quickly generated several potential causal factors (see Table 2 below).

Table 2. Charlie High’s Potential Causal Factors Around EL Students’ Credit Accrual and Graduation Rates

Student Factors Teacher Factors Other Factors
  • Students’ inconsistent attendance
  • Students’ need to earn “survival money,” which often conflicts with school
  • Students’ major performance gaps in reading and math
  • Students have poor attendance, reducing their instructional time with teachers.
  • Students’ history of disrupted education (i.e., over-age and under-credited)
  • Teachers’ limited knowledge of how to effectively navigate cultural differences with ELs
  • Teachers’ limited knowledge of how to effectively differentiate and scaffold instruction (especially for ELs in both academic classes and CTE classes)
  • Inadequate academic intervention resources
  • Inadequate resources for students’ mental health or trauma recovery
  • Poor school facilities
  • Class sizes that are too large

Despite the passionate debates during the process of developing the problem statement, there was a clear and easy consensus around these potential causal factors. The group expressed relief that while ELs were explicitly recognized in the potential causal factor brainstorm, the challenges for non-EL students were reflected in these statements as well.

Facilitation Best Practice

The expert facilitators encouraged the group to use language and data that resonated with them rather than spending time ensuring the phrasing was “perfect,” which helped the group spend their time on the issues that mattered to them most.

Next, the expert facilitators asked volunteers to come up to the wall and organize the potential causal factors into five “starter” categories: (1) academics and instruction, (2) climate and culture, (3) social-emotional support, (4) facilities, and (5) systems. When the group collaboratively organized the self-adhesive notes into these five categories, they noted that most of their potential causal factors were grouped under “climate and culture”; however, the group also emphasized that they wanted to try for more specificity moving forward.

After grouping the potential causal factors, the group split into five small groups to analyze the potential causal factors and create a causal factor statement for each of the categories. The final causal factor statements are listed in Table 3.

Table 3. Charlie High’s Causal Factor Statements EL Students’ Credit Accrual and Graduation Rates

Instruction Climate and Culture Social-Emotional Support Safety Systems
Teachers do not have adequate training in intervention, support for ELs, and trauma-informed teaching practices. School staff have failed to establish a singular, unifying Charlie High culture for students, which has led to many students (especially ELs) feeling disconnected and disengaged from school. Students have insufficient access to wraparound services to help meet their behavioral, financial, and health needs. School staff show inadequate and inconsistent implementation of security and safety policies. There are disproportionate resources and supports available for students.

Once these causal factor statements were drafted and agreed upon, each small group that originally developed a causal factor statement pivoted to the next activity: analyzing underlying and root causes.

Analyzing Underlying and Root Causes

Facilitation Best Practice

The expert facilitators reminded the group at the beginning of the “five whys” protocol that they had a limited scope of influence and that their work in uncovering root causes needed to stop when they reached issues they could not address at the school level.

Each small group collaboratively engaged in a “five whys” protocol for their causal factor statements, filling out a fishbone diagram to organize the underlying and root causes they identified. Then, each group shared and discussed the causes they had identified.

  • The group was unsure of how to address the “social-emotional support” category, given that many of these causes go beyond what school staff can meaningfully address. In the end, the group acknowledged that the resources available through CSI identification might be used for wraparound services for students and families. The issues related to facilities were also a challenge because although the group acknowledged that time spent on these issues reduced the time they could spend on instruction and outreach, they felt powerless to make any changes until they were approved to move into a new building.
  • In discussing the potential causes related to teachers, the group noted that the main issue was not simply a lack of teacher knowledge about how to work with low-performing students. Many participants shared stories of significant growth they had seen students’ make in the past few years and affirmed their belief that their teachers were helping students make “learning miracles” after years of struggling in elementary and middle school. In reality, though many teachers are dedicated educators they do not have access to intervention curriculum, materials, support staff, or coaches. Likewise, many teachers have more than 30 students in their classes and spend a significant amount of time daily on behavioral interventions. Although the group agreed that training for teachers would be helpful, their true needs in terms of resources are additional staff and materials.
  • In discussing issues related to ELs and teacher efficacy, the group realized that both teachers and students at Charlie High need to feel connected to each other and the school to stay invested; therefore, efforts to make ELs feel welcome coupled with additional supports for teachers might make a major difference in ELs’ attendance, persistence, and achievement over time.

The final fishbone diagram is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Charlie High’s Fishbone Diagram of Underlying and Root Causes

Endpoint is Low Graduation Rate. Contributing factors are Instruction, Climate and Culture, Social-Emotional Support, Safety, and Systems. Each of these have further contributing factors.

Root Cause Identified

Teachers don’t have the resources necessary to meet all students’ learning needs and keep students engaged in school.

After developing an initial fishbone diagram, the group voted together as to whether they believed each of these categories showed contributing causes (i.e., causes that may or may not need to be addressed) or root causes (i.e., causes that must be considered to address the problem). The group quickly agreed that although important, the causes in the “social-emotional support” and “facilities” categories were ones they could not address on their own and were therefore contributing causes. Next, the group recognized that “instruction,” “climate and culture,” and “systems” all shared a common cause: teachers not having the resources needed to meet student learning needs, especially those of ELs. In the end, the group agreed that teacher resources reflected the true root cause of their problem statement. With the root cause of the problem statement successful identified, the group moved on to the final part of the root cause analysis process: strategy selection.

icon of a lightbulb as puzzle pieces

Part 3: Identifying Solutions

In pivoting to strategy selection, the group agreed that for their work moving forward they would need to commit to working smarter, not harder. Many participants reflected on the time and energy school staff and community partners had made over the past few years and the need to not “disrespect” or “burn out” staff with additional expectations. The group agreed to brainstorm any and all potential solutions to the root cause (i.e., that teachers don’t have the resources necessary to meet all students’ learning needs and keep students engaged in school) as part of strategy selection. However, the group also recognized that it would need to revisit the list at a later date to consider the efficiency and feasibility of the strategies and select those with the greatest possibility to have a positive impact. The final list of strategies selected included the following:

  • Provide teachers with intervention curricular resources and support staff for ELs. The group emphasized that training for teachers in how to best support ELs would be important, but the first priority was giving them resources they could use immediately. Further, the group emphasized that teachers needed more time and capacity to focus on meeting individual student needs, which would only be possible with the support of additional staff. The group expressed that having support staff with expertise in working with ELs could provide teachers with relief as well as on-hand support for questions or issues with students in real time.
  • Provide wraparound supports targeting student needs. The group discussed how although many students can access three meals a day in school, many are also responsible for feeding their family members. The group discussed how making students’ extended families welcome in the school might help build better engagement and reduce the time students spend out of school trying to earn money for their families. The group also committed to exploring ways to provide students with on-campus employment or paid internships.
  • Recognize students and staff. The group emphasized how important and influential it can be to earn recognition and praise for one’s dedication and accomplishments; therefore, the group committed to establishing formal processes for recognizing students for their achievements as well as recognizing teachers for going above and beyond.
  • Advocate for district resources for over-age, under-credited students. Although the group felt positive about the potential solutions they identified, the group still expressed reluctance that they could make enough difference to offset the impact of over-age and under-credited students enrolled by the district. In the end, the leadership team committed to advocate for appropriate supports for over-age and under-credited students as well as policies that prevent late enrollments from negatively impacting their graduation rates.

In the end, the group recognized that although root cause analysis had been a painful process for them, staff and leadership remain dedicated to the school community and the students. By engaging in the root cause analysis process, the group was able to collectively identify what was working well and what was not working well at Bravo Middle and agree on ways to move forward positively.

To learn more about how the root cause analysis process fits into the broader school improvement planning process, please see the Using Evidence to Strengthen Educational Investments non-regulatory guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

1 The core problem identified in Charlie High School’s root cause analysis process was required to be related to school improvement.