What Is Hack Night Good For?

A Somerville Schools Example

Thanks to Kevin Robinson for helping me write this post!

Somerville Public Schools is a K-12 school district of around 5,000 students near Boston, MA. Like any public school district, its principals and administrators have a wish-list of things that would help them out.

Some of the things on Somerville’s wish-list involve technology:

  • Identifying students at risk
  • Holistic views of student progress
  • Documenting interventions that help students

The district has databases that don’t talk to each other, which makes it hard to get a complete picture of student progress. It’s hard for administrators to tell which students need extra help, but aren’t getting it. For example: “Which students would be good candidates for after-school tutoring, but aren’t in the program yet?”

I started working with Somerville as a part of a Code for America fellowship year. Somerville hired us to build prototypes of what better systems could look like.

After the year was over, I wasn’t sure how the project would continue. Working on it by myself was a recipe for burnout. The project needed a community to succeed.

Through Code for Boston, I met Kevin Robinson. Kevin is an fantastic product manager and software engineer. Kevin’s technical and interpersonal contributions put the project on a fast track to meeting the school district’s needs. We made a conscious decision to invest some of our time going to Code for Boston.

Spending time at Code for Boston was a tradeoff. If we skipped Code for Boston, we could spend more time building out the project ourselves. So why do we spend time there? Each week at CfB, we are seeing the community around the Somerville project grow stronger:

We want to build bonds between the Code for Boston contributors who come each week and the educators we are serving. Jill Geiser, principal at The Healey School, came to Code for Boston the other week. She talked with contributors and explained the needs she sees in her own school.

One Code for Boston contributor, Eli, has started onboarding new members. Week after week, his contributions are pushing the project ahead. Eli gets on the phone with district leaders and us every week now. Soon he’ll be going to schools to observe the meetings where our project is used. And Eli is just one of almost a dozen contributors who are helping build up the Somerville tool.

Don’t get me wrong. There are challenges to the Code for Boston work. It’s easy to walk into a volunteer community like Code for Boston with hopes that volunteers will remake your project in one or two weeks, and end up feeling frustrated or impatient. I hope to write about those challenges at length in another post.

But with effort, you can build a team at a hack night. I believe that great things come from teams. Code for Boston is helping us build a team that can serve Somerville’s school system.