Chicago Public Schools: Data-Empowered Students & Teachers More Successful


After 10 years strategizing with leaders in the Chicago Public Schools system, Melissa Zaikos (MBA 2000) turned to the data to create a new public education experience for the city’s students.
Back in 2011, when Melissa Zaikos (MBA 2000) began digging deeply into the standardized test scores of the Chicago Public Schools, she saw some concerning trends. Elementary schools, she thought, seemed to be getting better in the Chicago area. But once students reached middle and high school, the gap between the high-achieving students and those who needed academic support grew considerably. A few years later, Stanford University released a study that confirmed her observations. “Chicago had made a lot of progress in elementary schools,” says Zaikos, “but high schools were really hard to crack.”

At the time, Zaikos was working for the Chicago Public Schools system as part of the Broad Residency, a program created to bring management professionals into urban education, in an effort to provide leadership and organizational problem-solving skills. She had spent nearly a decade with the Chicago Public Schools system, building strategy and leadership projects for schools and their principals, and began to wonder what she might be able to accomplish if she branched out of the traditional public school model. What if she could create a new kind of school that could better personalize middle and high school education, closing the gap between students who excelled and those who needed support?

So, in 2012, Zaikos launched the Intrinsic School—a network of public charter schools with an innovative approach to the middle school and high school experience. Rather than using the data from standardized tests (which are unpopular with both parents and teachers), and applying it to a school or grade or classroom en masse, Intrinsic employs it to individualize student learning. “You’ve got to figure out how you differentiate for all and make sure that the students at the top are still being challenged and those who aren’t yet at grade level are getting the support that they need,” says Zaikos. “We put the right data in front of the right people and gave them the skills to look at it and adjust.”

The result was a pilot school on West Belmont Ave in the Hermosa neighborhood of Chicago made up of large, open-classroom spaces called Pods for traditional class periods, with up to 60 students, and broken into subjects based on personal learning data. Three teachers support each Pod, and the setup allows them to be flexible with student learning without having to create individualized lesson plans for each of the 1,000 students enrolled at Intrinsic. The data can tell the staff, for example, to group the students one way if they’re teaching statistics, but another way if they’re looking at algebraic function. “Different students are at different levels for different things,” says Zaikos, “so students spend some of their time working independently, some of their time working in small-group instruction with a teacher, and some of their time working collaboratively with peers.”

Yet even tailoring the Pods to students’ strengths and challenges can only go so far, Zaikos admits. So Intrinsic also encourages self agency by asking students to set their own schedules one day a week. “We know that, at two-year colleges, the students who tend to be more successful are the ones who seek out the writing lab, or go to tutors, or talk to the professor.” The students, in other words, identify their own educational gaps and seek ways to address them. “Do you need study halls? Do you need office hours with your math teacher because you’re struggling? Do you need time in biology because you’re stuck? Or do you need time to work with your peers on a group project?” Zaikos explains. “We’re trying to force them to make decisions about their own learning, about what they need.”

The organization wants more Chicago high schoolers to apply and succeed in college, and Intrinsic’s own data supports that mission. Last year, 92 percent of the class of 140 students graduated, and 91 graduates of Intrinsic’s Class of 2019 took that step into postsecondary education—with 43 percent of the class graduating high school having already earned early college credits.

Intrinsic’s success led Zaikos and her team to open a second campus in a downtown Chicago high-rise with 90 students in the fall of 2019. This fall, they will have 360—on their way to 1,000—mirroring the numbers at the West Belmont campus. Ultimately, says Zaikos, Intrinsic will give 2,000 Chicago students every year the chance to experience a tailored high school public education.

For Zaikos, Intrinsic is personal, having spent most of her life in Chicago and raised her own kids there. She’s passionate about making the city better, she says, and knows education is one of the primary ways to improve it. “I was very much drawn to working in education. It’s been incredibly gratifying to be able to bring the leadership and management skills I learned at HBS to help grow this inspiring, innovative, and tight-knit community of students, families, staff, and other partners,” says Zaikos. “I am proud of our collective efforts and how we tackle challenges and celebrate wins. There is no place I’d rather be.”


Originally published July 24, 2020, on the Harvard Business School Alumni Stories page.  Chicago Public Schools is an EqualLevel customer.
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