Manalapan’s Metamorphosis: Cultivating A Data Culture


The LinkIt! Team

Read time:

8 minutes

Ten years ago in the Manalapan-Englishtown Regional School District (PK-8), “data” was a four-letter word – the kind your mom would wash your mouth out with soap for using.

Around this time, most teachers across the nation regarded the systemic use of data with dread if not flat-out animosity, and New Jersey was no exception. Wary educators considered data complicated, time-consuming, and burdensome. They worried that data would intrude on the very personal “I know what my kids need to learn” instructional process or somehow validate the notion that standardized testing should be the chief measure of student achievement and school effectiveness. The antipathy ratcheted up several notches when the state legislature passed a law mandating that teacher evaluations and tenure decisions be based in part on measurable student growth, thrusting data into the lives of educators like never before.

Fast forward to 2019. The New Jersey Department of Education awarded Manalapan’s Clark Mills School a dazzling 99.11 score in its annual school rankings, recognizing the elementary school as one of the top three schools in Monmouth County and twenty-first in all of New Jersey. But Manalapan’s excellence does not end with Clark Mills. Four of the district’s five schools placed in the 89th percentile or better in New Jersey. Data has become so infused in Manalapan’s DNA that the district now shares LinkIt! benchmarks results with parents – a practice that speaks volumes on just how much has changed.

This is more than the story of the innovative and transformative utilization of data by Manalapan teachers and administrators; it is the story of a young principal who found her leadership groove through data-based decision-making, shaping her school into one of the district’s shining stars.


The sparks that ignited the crackling data inferno in Manalapan can be traced to three events that happened independently within less than a year of each other. The initial two were the introduction of LinkIt! and the official start of RTI (Response to Intervention), an initiative of Superintendent Dr. John Marciante, Jr; the third sent shockwaves throughout the school community:

In its inaugural year as the district’s sixth-grade center in 2012, Pine Brook School was designated by the state as a Focus school in need of improvement. Pine Brook had previously been honored for excellence by the U.S. Department of Education as a national Blue Ribbon school.

“It was a shock, a real eye-opener,” said Karen Leder, RTI Coach, one of the two RTI interventionists in the district during this time. “People said ‘We have a Blue Ribbon. How could it be that we’re not meeting the needs of our students?’”

The state’s designation of Pine Brook as a Focus school stemmed from a large proficiency gap between the highest-performing subgroup of students on state tests and the combined proficiency of the two lowest-performing subgroups. Solving this problem demanded disaggregating and combing through the data more closely than ever before. It also required a philosophical shift on the part of teachers. The ability to easily track individual growth is one of the benefits of data and a comprehensive analytics platform.

“Many years ago when I first started, you looked at what was best for your class,” said teacher Christine Schneiweiss. “’How is your class going to learn best?’ Data has made you really focus on each student, each student’s differences, how each child learns, what each child’s capability is... So it really made you take a step back to not only teach each kid but to have a plan for each one.” Pine Brook developed criteria of specific data points to determine the instructional supports that students needed.

“There was no more, ‘I think, I feel,’ and the reliance on observation,” Leder said. 

LinkIt! became an invaluable tool during this period, and training of the data leadership teams at every school ramped up. Data leaders funneled the knowledge down to the teachers in their own buildings. LinkIt! has evolved significantly since those early years. The graphic interface has become easier to use and more intuitive, and the entire platform has become richer with powerful analytical features. Even back then, however, LinkIt’s power to guide daily instruction was clearly evident, particularly to Leder who took to it immediately. She became the district’s data guru virtually overnight, not just for providing the technical “how-tos” of the application, but for offering suggestions on how to analyze the data itself – a critical role for a school on a mission.

Professional learning communities at Pine Brook, still a relatively new concept in the state at the time, found their purpose: translate data into actionable plans to meet the instructional needs of individual students. The deep insight that LinkIt! reveals allowed intensive and targeted remediation on the skill and standard-level. Just one year after Focus school designation, hardworking Pine Brook educators had slashed the achievement gap between the top students and the lowest-performing students by half, moving the school out from under the dark Focus cloud.

The happy ending, after such perseverance and bold strides, was cause for celebration. But there was something more important: The mission, initially aimed at fixing a single achievement gap issue, had fundamentally changed the delivery of instruction in ways never dreamed possible. Students, teachers, and administrators were all better because of it.

The success at Pine Brook was also an early feather in the caps of both RTI and LinkIt. RTI is data dependent and LinkIt’s ability to identify at-risk learners and inform at every stage of the RTI process quickly led to both becoming indispensable in Manalapan.

But first, the mettle of LinkIt! and RTI would be tested again the very next school year.


Jayme Orlando worked her way up through the ranks in Manalapan to earn her principalship: eight years as an elementary teacher and then six years as an assistant principal. It was her home and the only workplace she had known. She was ready to lead, she had no doubt.

Sharp and effervescent, Orlando uses her natural interpersonal skills to forge strong professional relationships and foster a sense of community within Clark Mills (Gr. 1-5). When state test scores that first year showed a noticeable dip, there was some concern, but the dip was considered just a blip on the radar screen. I thought to myself, “these things happen. Manalapan is a high achieving district so the ship will right itself, particularly with such top-notch teachers.”

The test results the following year, which indicated that Pine Brook had escaped Focus school status, showed that the Clark Mills’ dip had become a drop. The elementary school was anchored at the bottom of the district in overall achievement. It wasn’t yet a Focus school but it was in some deep water.

“As principal, I felt responsible,” Orlando said. “I felt that I must be doing something wrong and maybe I didn’t know my staff or my students well enough. I felt that I always focused on school culture but that culture wasn’t translating into student achievement. So I knew I needed to do more.”

Orlando and the Clark Mills staff built upon the lessons learned from Pine Brook. The baby steps that Clark Mills had taken into LinkIt! during its introductory year turned into galloping strides. Orlando took it upon herself to become a data expert. LinkIt! staff members, in particular LinkIt! President Ryan Winter, helped her interpret reports and taught her the nuances of the application so she could pass that knowledge on to her faculty.

“What I started doing was holding data meetings with my teachers,” Orlando said. “Working with my assistant principal, we would take the data in LinkIt! – the historical data, the DRA [Developmental Reading Assessment] data, the LinkIt! benchmarks, a variety of data points, not just one data point, – and break it down to skills and standards. We examined where our students were excelling, where they were falling short, and what we needed to do differently.”

Teachers were already feeling the stress of having the lowest test scores in the district; now they had the pressure to learn LinkIt, analyze data from a variety of sources, and change their instructional practices. When teachers saw the steady growth of their students and the fruits of their labor, however, they warmed to the new way of doing business.

When the test results came back from Trenton at the end of the school year, Clark Mills had risen to third out of the eight schools in the district (it would be one more year, Orlando said, for the data culture to be cemented in the building). Orlando’s stamp on Clark Mills was now indelible. Through overcoming the challenge, she had forever changed instruction in the building and discovered what would quickly become a defining element of her principalship: data leadership.

From there, it was full-steam ahead. With another check mark added to the RTI/LinkIt! win column, RTI and the informal instructional supports put into place were expanded. Clark Mills and sister school Milford Brook (led by Orlando’s real-life sister, Principal Jodi Pepchinski) established data problem-solving teams to help monitor intervention. The schools also set up very specific protocols for RTI.

The precise instructional interventions needed for low scores on various assessments were detailed and the request process to obtain services for students was formalized and streamlined. The results were so successful, the RTI protocols were adopted for use throughout the district. LinkIt! and RTI were perfect together.

The list of ways data has changed Manalapan goes on and on. It does more than just inform instruction there. It’s become a common language. Assessment data is used to set goals and recognize achievements, communicate to parents, and guide professional development.

“I have to say data is no longer a four-letter word in our district,” said Orlando. “It is embraced and it really tells the story of who we are as a school district. I think it goes back to teachers really coming to understand data and how they can use it to make a difference in a child’s life. LinkIt! has been an integral part in this. We really couldn’t have done it without them.”


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