At This Education Nonprofit, A Is for Analytics

Social services agencies are turning to data to find the practices that get the best results.

Christopher House is a Chicago-based education nonprofit originally founded in 1906 to help immigrant families adjust to life in the United States. More than 100 years since its founding, it has evolved into a family of schools that prepares children and families from low-income households for success in life, in school and the workplace by providing a continuum of education. In 2013, Christopher House opened an elementary school in Belmont Cragin to make good on their promise to provide that continuum of education. In the second year of this new facility, they are serving children from six weeks old through second grade, with plans to add a grade every year as their oldest students advance.

Over the last 10 years, says CEO Lori Baas, the company has focused on high-quality infant school, preschool, early childhood education, elementary school, afterschool, and parent school programs, college and career readiness, and a commitment to using data at every step in every program along that continuum of education. The company’s director of quality assurance, Traci Stanley, oversees Christopher House’s agency-wide database system to track student outcomes — data that’s used to assess programs and suggest improvements.

MIT Sloan Management Review guest editor Sam Ransbotham spoke to Lori Baas and Traci Stanley about how data informs Christopher House’s educational program.

We’ve done interviews with other organizations that have the classic corporate model. You’re obviously quite different. But you are very data-focused. Was the initial founding of the organization around data, or has this focus on data emerged over the last 10 or 15 years?

Lori Baas: It has emerged over the last 10 years. It started with our board of directors, who were saying, “Lori, you tell us Christopher House has one of the best early childhood programs in the city. How do we know? Tell us what you’re basing that information on. Or you say we’re increasing kids’ grades in elementary school. How do you know?”

So we first started internally — creating or identifying tools to use for assessments, so we’d be able to present that data to our board, to evaluate programs and improve programs. But, then it also evolved as an organizational conversation about how we compare with other organizations in the city.