Nathan Trenholm blew away the wealthy business people sitting in the Smith Center’s main theatre. It was at the BE Engaged Conference in 2019, where principals and admin rub shoulders with the people they hope to partner with, to plug the funding holes in their budgets.
Trenholm gave a clear, concise, entertaining 17-minute presentation showing how education in Nevada was actually doing better than its reputation, and how the reputation of “throwing good money after bad” was not only wrong, but inhibited future budget increases.
His presentation took my breath away. And it had attendees buzzing in the lobby afterward.
Trenholm was presenting on behalf of Data Insight Partners, a company he had created less than two years earlier with his partner, Justin White.
Both White and Trenholm had worked as data guys for CCSD. Trenholm was the director of research and accountability. White was a coordinator in the data services department. He built the Curriculum Engine about 10 years ago.
Both of them say one of the reasons they left is they weren’t really allowed to do their jobs.
One day, Trenholm says, he put together an analysis of the yearly standardized testing (SBAC). One of the many things his data told him was that 5th graders were doing better than 6th graders the next year. That told him there might be something unaddressed with the transition to middle school.
He brought people together for a meeting and, as he told me last week, said, “Hey I just did this, and how are we going to communicate it to the board and parents and schools.”
Trenholm is like a little kid when he talks data. All excited at his discoveries.
He says he was told by his boss, “The superintendent didn’t tell us to do an analysis.”
And that was that. A couple of months later, Trenholm got a call. The superintendent – who at that time was Pat Skorkowsky – was doing a presentation to a group of admin. Could Trenholm quickly put something together that referred to the yearly SBAC scores?
The feeling Trenholm said he got was that it didn’t need to be good, or even accurate. It just had to be done.
“The reality of it was, if you tried to serve and support schools, you were getting reprimanded,” he told me.
White chimes in. “We had to stop working for the district so we could start working for the schools.”
And that became their ethos.
“We’re passionate about helping kids get the best education possible,” White says, before deadpanning, “So we had to leave the district.”
The timing was perfect. In 2017 the reorganization plan that Skorkowsky and his team had been working to put into place was stamped into law in the legislature. AB469 designated each school in Clark County as an autonomous zone, with a budget that was to be controlled by the principal in coordination with their School Organization Team (SOT). Actually, AB469 invented the idea of SOTs. Because at the heart of the law, says former Assemblyman Stephen Silberkraus, “The reorg [was about] pushing the dollars down, creating the SOTs so parents would have a say in the process. That was the main goal.”
Silberkraus was a co-sponsor of the bill that eventually became the reorg law. In 2015, he worked with his Assembly Colleague David Gardner to craft a bill to break up the school district. AB394 sent CCSD into a tailspin. Separate districts in Henderson and North Las Vegas and Las Vegas and unincorporated Clark County would not be financially equitable for students. It would create more overhead and administrative duplication, so the argument went.
Unspoken – even by me as I had numerous conversations with Skorkowsky on the radio – was that breaking up the district meant giving up power. Not necessarily his. Skorkowsky is not a power guy. But power that accrued to being “the 5th largest school district in the country.”
So Skorkowsky and his team got together and came up with a plan to diffuse the power, by giving more responsibility and control to the schools. That plan became AB469.
Which brings us back to Data Insight Partners.
Trenholm and White started out with two schools – Orr Middle School and Valley High School.
Last year, before the world shut down, they were servicing 36 schools. More than 10 percent of the total number of schools in the district.
They were hoping to get a contract to service all schools, and got a bit of encouragement in a February 2019 Trustees meeting where Supt. Jesus Jara presented the district’s 5-year strategic plan. He told the Trustees that the district was going to focus on student achievement, that there was a sense of urgency, and it was to be based on the data.
Then he turned it over to then-Deputy Superintendent Diane Gullett.
“When we look at a comprehensive data dashboard, it needs to incorporate a lot of the components of all of the formative assessment processes, and the state data,” Gullett told the board. “We have limited capacity to do that.”
When then-Trustee Chris Garvey pushed for more, Gullett said, “We need to have some expertise in providing that. So we have to be able to look at data that is going to be relevant and timely and something that can be monitored and can incorporate some of the scorecards that we’re talking about and something that’s useful for a school to pull up day to day so that any staff member can access it and immediately use it to drive instruction.”
What she was describing is what Data Insight Partners was already doing. And since they were the only data company working directly with schools, it’s hard to imagine that she was not talking about them.
Gullett has since become the superintendent of the Marion County School District in Florida.
Calls to her office and an email directly to her went unanswered.
Later that summer White and Trenholm presented the dashboards they had created to Regional Superintendent Debbie Brockett.
“She said it’s the most amazing product she’s ever seen,” Trenholm told me in an interview I did for IMPACT with him and White. “To the point where she said, ‘If the district doesn’t contract with you to get this in every school, I’m going to quit working for the district and start my own charter network just so I can use this product.’ That’s how enthusiastic she was about it.”
On July 2nd of 2019, Brockett sent an email to White telling them she “think[s] we got the green light to open conversation with you and Nathan for use district wide,” followed by five exclamation points and a smiley face. The next day, she sent them an email that she was meeting with Kelly O’Rourke, head of the division of Assessment, Accountability, Research and School Improvement (AARSI), “and am pretty sure after we talk she will be your point of contact! I am excited and hope this works out!”
That was the last White and Trenholm heard from the district.
CCSD would not make Brockett available for this story.
A few months later, the partners said they got reports from some of their client schools that folks from data services came in to examine how the schools work with data.
“It turns out they’re sending a team of programmers essentially demanding to go into our site and look at every single page and take recordings of our applications,” Trenholm said.
In early-2020 the district rolled out their new dashboards. And they looked weirdly like Data Insights’ dashboards. Like, almost exact copies.
Trenholm and White wrote a blog post with lots of details and pictures, but I’ll share a few here.
What you’re looking at is CCSD’s original dashboard detailing chronic absenteeism. That’s the one on top, in red, yellow and green. White and Trenholm laugh at how confusing this is.
The chart on the bottom left is the one that Data Insight Partners created with their software called “My Education Data.”
The chart on the bottom right is what CCSD “unveiled” to their principals as their new dashboards, which they are calling “Focus Ed.”
Trenholm and White have a lot of these kinds of comparisons.
They assert CCSD also copied their data organization, which is intellectual copyright, and even their logo. Data Insight Partners’ My Education Data logo is on the top left part of their dashboard, and is a graduation cap with a circle around it. The new logo for the district’s Focus Ed is in the same spot on the dashboard and is a dot with a circle going around it.
“It’s so asinine and laughable the levels at which they chose to copy what we were doing,” Trenholm said. “It’s as bad as the 8th grader who steals someone’s essay paper and then copies their name, too.”
White said the dashboards were so similar that “when they started unveiling this to principals, we started getting phone calls from people congratulating us, because they thought the district had bought our system.”
Principals, though, were not impressed with what they saw from the pilot program of Focus Ed.
The district’s product was, and still is, “limited in scope, slow and not as user friendly,” said one principal.
“It’s a smidge better than a spreadsheet,” said another.
Trenholm and White say all 36 of their client schools put Data Insight Partners into their budgets for the 2020/21 school year. Data Insight Partners was on the approved list of vendors the schools could work with, but schools had to go through purchasing to finalize the budget item.
And one by one schools were finding that the purchase order for Data Insight Partners was denied.
“When we questioned why,” one principal told me, “we were told ‘we have something similar.’”
Another principal goes further.
“I don’t recall it ever being explained to us that we couldn’t use Data Insight. No one told us. It wasn’t announced. It wasn’t in the weekly. We were never explicitly told. It was a cloak and dagger thing.”
“To this day,” says Trenholm, “we have never been told why our services are being blocked.”
That’s when they decided to send a cease and desist order and file for arbitration. That was in October. After months of stalling by the district, their arbitration date is finally set for March 9.
Let’s be clear here, even though Trenholm and White have copies of SOT minutes from schools choosing to opt for Data Insight Partners’ software, CCSD decided to bar these schools from using their chosen vendor, and is forcing these schools to use the district’s product. The district’s inferior product.
Let’s also be clear… this is a violation of the reorganization law, which gives schools:
Autonomy for the principal of each empowerment school to decide issues relating to the operation of the school, including, without limitation, the school schedule, governance, incentives for employees, staffing, budgeting and the provision of instruction…
Let’s go back to that 17-minute presentation at the 2019 BE Engaged conference. It wasn’t just about numbers. It was about students. It was about heart.
“The recession that many of us in this room experienced is not the same recession that our at-needs children have experienced,” Trenholm told the well-heeled crowd in 2019.
I talked with half a dozen principals whose schools have used Data Insight Partners and their MyEducationData software.
They all said the same thing – for White and Trenholm, data isn’t about numbers, it’s about human beings. And what they provide isn’t just dashboards, it’s extraordinary service.
“One of the more important things we do is make it easier to engage more people with education data,” said Trenholm. Their clients are students and teachers and admin and parents, not data analysts. Getting all of these people to interact with the data is the goal.
“Our theory of change is that if you can change conversations then you can change mindsets. If you can change mindsets then you can change actions. And if you can change actions, you can change outcomes,” Trenholm said.
He cited work they did early on at Orr Middle School. In the fall of 2017, Orr was required to have monthly Title 1 parent meetings. Title 1 refers to students in poverty, who are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The first meeting, three parents showed up. The next month, no one showed up. Before the third meeting, Data Insight Partners generated student profile reports for parents to look at and bring with them for discussion at the meeting.
“It was standing room only in their theatre,” Trenholm said. And every meeting after that was packed, as parents and students got real time information on where the student was and where they could get to – and were given dashboards themselves that Trenholm and White taught them to analyze.
Orr’s goal that year was to raise standardized SBAC scores. In 2017, their reading scores were in the 24th percentile. After engaging parents and empowering teachers and students with data, by 2019, the school was at a 32 percent proficiency rate.
One principal told me Data Insight Partners was able to raise attendance by collecting clear data about how family pressures were affecting students. District leaders and principals know that some kids miss school because they have to take care of their siblings. By doing social/emotional profiles, Trenholm and White were able to pinpoint which students might skip school on which days and help the principal create solutions.
“They were able to raise our attendance,” the principal said.
Other principals said that Data Insight Partners was able to make it easier for teachers to reach out to kids whose home lives were less than stable. Having a dashboard that brings up the anniversary of a brother’s death, for instance, is incredibly helpful to how a teacher might work with that student.
“I don’t think it would be fair of us to claim that we were responsible for their improvements,” said Trenholm. “It will always be the teachers and staff that are working in the schools day in and day out with the students that deserve all the credit. We just try to do everything we can to help make it a little easier.”
The partners know they need to teach teachers and admin how to read the data, and how different data points go together. So they provide professional development.
The pair and their employees were able to support teacher and principal requests usually within a day. And they would solve one problem for a school and realize that another school could also use the dashboard they had just created.
Now, said a principal I talked with, when they have questions of the district about how to use or interpret data they’re looking at, the district tells them to figure it out on their own.
“We believe education is a human relationship business, so we’re constantly trying to strengthen that for them,” Trenholm told me.
“The data served us,” said one principal. “It was like having an assistant principal ready with data any time you needed it, but for much less cost.”
None of the principals I talked to would allow me to use their name, citing a retaliatory atmosphere in the district. They all cited Jara’s push for decisions based on data, and found it odd that district admin would take away a good data source and replace it with something inferior.
The inferiority part is what principals complain about most. They just can’t trust that the district’s work is accurate. For instance, at one school, Focus Ed showed an on-time attendance rate of 300,000 percent.
That’s simply impossible.
“If you’re going to hold us accountable for student achievement, then give us the tools we need to do our job,” one principal told me. “Taking Data Insight away from us is tying our hands. It’s almost like we’re being set up to fail.”
The case that Trenholm and White make is a good one. They have charts that show pretty clear cut copyright infringement, and testimonials from everyone who has worked with them. But they still face an uphill battle.
They served a cease and desist and asked for arbitration because, as Trenholm said, “We need our lives back. Going to court can take years.”
And an entity like the “5th largest school district in the nation” has the resources to fight this for years. A small business does not.
“You can’t overestimate how sickening this is to have this happen to you,” said Trenholm. “They just wiped out 70 percent of our business. It’s like they just stole your house.”
“It was gut wrenching,” said White.
“We’re a local company, we live here in Southern Nevada, our kids go to school in Clark County, we’re here to serve.”
The principals who participated in this story say they would not even have talked to me anonymously because of the fear of retaliation if this hadn’t been about White and Trenholm, who they feel are getting a raw deal.
“I am driven by altruism,” said one. “What’s right is right.”