At the September 26 PP55 Board Meeting, Robert Spackey ’08 talked about his 2008-09 PP55 fellowship experience at College Summit in Washington, DC. His prepared remarks are below.
Princeton Project 55
Remarks for the Board of Directors
September 26, 2009
I first stepped foot in the Princeton Project 55 office in April of 2008. I was a late-comer to the fellowship application process, having assumed for most of my senior year that non-profits were not were I wanted to expend my energy. Most non-profits, I presumed, were well-intentioned, but poorly managed, inefficient, and stale places to work. After an earnest but wholly unsuccessful job hunt, I began to expand my search and found that Project 55 had several unfilled positions. So, I took a chance. I applied, was accepted, and apathetically began what has turned into one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have learned so much this year from my work at College Summit, and being in a challenging environment with smart people thinking about tough business and educational problems has forced me to rethink, and truly appreciate the role of a non-profit organization.
College Summit’s mission is to place more low-income students in college. We partner with high schools around the country and provide a curriculum for seniors applying to college. The curriculum is taught as a regular class in which the teacher walks students through the application process, completing tasks such as college lists, applications and the FAFSA. We are a social entrepreneurship venture, which means that we find innovative ways to sustain organization. For instance, we sell our curriculum to school districts for a nominal fee. In addition, we seek to attract “investors”, not simply funders. These investors are shown data that our product produces results, and they invest, confident that more dollars will produce results for more students. Consequently, strong data is crucial to furthering our mission and reaching more students. But last year we had what some might call a “data crisis”. Although I didn’t know it then, the data crisis would be a turning point in my first year in the workforce.
It was the week before Christmas. Everyone was in a great mood, and little work was getting done. But unbeknownst to most of the organization, the leadership team was looking at some pretty unsettling numbers from our data department. We all went off to Christmas break (yes, College Summit has a Christmas break), blissfully content that everything was just fine. The executive team didn’t break the news until after the holidays but let’s just say we all had a very sobering start to the new year. At 10am on Tuesday, January 6, the Vice Presidents called a meeting with anyone whose job touched data in any way. My job happened to be tangentially related to data so I was there and I remember distinctly the speech we were given. Brian, our vice president of operations, opened by stating that our numbers were showing that only 2% of our students had submitted a college application. This was not good; more importantly, it was not accurate. We knew anecdotally that students roughly half our students had submitted an application, but the system was not reflecting that reality. After the initial announcement, Tom, the representative from the project management office, got into more detail about some possible ideas for solving the problem. All were complicated, and all had significant downsides that were bound to make a lot of people unhappy.
I remember sitting in that meeting and asking myself one critical question: how does this affect me? As Tom read through his rough sketch of solutions, I looked around the room, and the faces of each individual spoke volumes. No one felt good about the problem, and no one felt good about the ideas to fix it. But furthermore, no one in the room quite knew who was the one to “own” this issue and guide it towards resolution. The 10 people in the room, and the additional 30 or so regional staff members on the phone all left that meeting deflated. Now I’m not going to stand up here and tell you I decided right then and there that I was going to solve this thing. No, frankly at that time I was still asking myself another question which was: given what it says in my job description, what should I do about this issue? Am I responsible for it? Will I be held accountable? From that perspective, the answer was clearly no, I was not ultimately responsible. I wrote parts of the curriculum that dealt with our data system, but this was much bigger than that. In fact, I reasoned, this was something for the managers and directors to sort out. Once they got a handle on the situation, then I would be given a clear directive about what to do. And given the fact that my job title had very little to do with this issue, I was confident that the directive would soon be: don’t worry about it, it’s not your problem.
That’s not how the data crisis concluded for me. The next day I remember being called into a meeting with a smaller group in which we started to weigh the options and plan who was going to tackle the issue. As the discussions began, I started to speak up and identify some risks involved with certain options on the table. We had several more meetings that week with the smaller group, and I found that the more information I had, the more I was able to contribute, and the less I felt like a tangential curriculum writer, orbiting far from the center of the problem. By the end of that week, after many rounds of sometimes heated discussion, and some serious bore down problem solving, I felt like an influential member of the group. In fact, it was clear that I, along with two others, had really taken this problem on. It wasn’t assigned to us. We weren’t the obvious picks to solve it. But this was our ad hoc team and by the end of the week, the three of us had developed a complex 35 step process necessary to achieve our goal. I knew by heart how accounts would be created in the computer system, how groups would be established to keep track of students by class, the data points that each regional team member would need to collect, the process for batch creating accounts when accounts couldn’t be created at the school, and the strict timeline necessary for meeting each milestone.
In the end, we accomplished our goal and were able to produce a report for the board that showed that 60% of our students had submitted a college application. To know that that process worked was incredibly satisfying. But what I realized looking back on that whole month was that I could have stood back and let others take care of the problem because working on the data crisis was not in my job description. But I made the choice to be intimately involved and go beyond my prescribed role.
College Summit constantly refers to our students as “better than their numbers”. On paper, they might not have the highest GPAs or the best standardized test scores, but their talents are tremendous nonetheless. In many ways, College Summit challenges it’s employees to be better than their numbers. It may say on paper that I’m an entry-level associate, but I found this year that that did not mean that that was all I could be. And going beyond the job description is a trait that I have found common among every single person in the organization who I consider to be excellent at what they do.
Today I am no longer an entry-level associate. I was promoted last spring three levels to be a senior coordinator for projects on the Research and Development team. But I haven’t stopped striving to be better than that title. I’ve been put in charge of a project called Launchpad Campaign that is piloting a new and innovative way of implementing College Summit. We are thinking critically about our costs of doing business, how we can scale good education, and how we can double and triple the number of students we serve each year. It is a great joy to be able to think about these tough problems and know that I can make the choice to be an influential problem-solver on whatever issue confronts us.
Last week, Keith Frome, our Chief Academic Officer told me at our regular weekly check-in that several schools in Colorado unexpectedly want to buy our curriculum for 9th graders. He asked me if I thought we should sell it to them on short notice. A year ago I would have said, hey, I don’t think I’m really the right person to help with this – that sounds like something you and the exec team need to decide. Of course, today I don’t respond that way. I say: it sounds like a promising opportunity, but we first need to think about how the curriculum will be supported because Colorado is short staffed. Maybe if we laid out up front that the school would get a one-time training and a minimal support after that, we could make the sale and not suffer capacity issues on the regional team. His response? I like it, let’s do it.
Click this youtube link to watch Robert Spackey at the May DC Fellows Forum