Ed-tech makes after-school programs more accountable

Looking to extend accountability from traditional schooling to before- and after-school programs, officials in the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Louisville, Ky., are issuing customized ID cards that let administrators and volunteers working for these community-based programs see student achievement data and other personal information housed in the school system’s data warehouse.

Administrators contend the new swipe-card tracking system, which works by having students scan their ID cards every time they enter and exit a participating facility, will help gauge participation and more accurately determine the impact of before- and after-school programs on student performance.

The experiment comes at a time when school leaders across the country are searching for ways to apply the information gleaned from increasingly sophisticated school data systems toward achieving the promise of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which requires schools to demonstrate improved academic performance across the board or risk losing federal funding.

Just as up-to-the-minute student achievement data can be used to foster improvements in the classroom, advocates of community-based before- and after-school programs contend that, with the help of ID cards, these data also can be used to bolster the impact of supplementary initiatives sponsored by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Salvation Army, and other neighborhood organizations.

As deputy superintendent of a school system that is responsible for more than 97,500 students across 150 schools, JCPS’s Marty Bell says before- and after-school programs–especially in large, urban settings–are essential. Unfortunately, he says, in many school systems, these programs often are undervalued.

“We are a school system that prides itself on working with our entire community, and [we] believe that it is the responsibility of all of us to educate these kids,” he said in a recent interview with eSchool News. “These programs aren’t just there to fill time–they are there to help students succeed.” From the time they enter grade school through their senior year in high school, Bell said, students on average spend only 13 percent of their waking hours in school. The other 87 percent of their time is spent outside the classroom–at home, under the supervision of community-based organizations, or elsewhere.

Finding it impossible to ignore these statistics, Bell and his colleagues set out to find a solution that would enable them to keep better track of student participation in before- and after-school programs and determine whether these programs were, in fact, having a positive impact on student performance.

Before deciding what system to use, JCPS officials sat down with leaders of several community-based nonprofit organizations, including the Salvation Army and the Boys & Girls Clubs, among others, to get a sense for these different programs and compare their goals to those of the school system.

What they found, according to Bell, was a dedication to student achievement and success that very closely mirrored what the district was trying to accomplish.

Like the public school system, Bell said, the community-based organizations he met with aim to offer programs that encourage students to continue their education through high school, earn a diploma, keep strong attendance, and strive for good grades along the way.

But despite these good intentions, Bell said, the majority of before- and after-school programs in and around Louisville lacked the ability to determine whether their initiatives were having their intended impact. Most programs, he said, relied on clumsy record-keeping and paper sign-in sheets to track attendance and had no way of determining whether students were performing better in school as a result of participating in extra-curricular programs.

“You need to make sure you have the correct information,” explained Bell, who added that the paper-based tracking systems used in many of the programs reportedly were providing inaccurate data for 70 percent of participating students. “We decided we had to do it electronically, as a group,” he said.

Originally, the district wanted to develop a custom solution of its own design. The goal was to create a tracking system that would help administrators analyze program attendance patterns, access key student information collected by the school district, tailor their offerings toward improved student performance, and help educators determine the overall effectiveness of before and after-school programs.

That’s when an administrator at one community-based organization introduced district officials to an electronic ID card system known as KidTrax.

Built by nFocus, a software company in Phoenix, Ariz., the KidTrax system automatically logs time and attendance information by scanning specially made ID cards when students enter and leave a facility, eliminating the need for paper sign-in sheets. Program administrators then can use the internet to access records and keep track of attendance patterns to aid in overall program development, scheduling, and to submit as further justification for their ongoing funding requests.

In Louisville, officials decided to take the program a step further by tying the KidTrax system into the school district’s existing data warehouse, giving educators in the schools and administrators in before- and after-school programs password-protected access to personal student information and NCLB-related performance data. The data are accessed through a custom-built middleware server that ensures both qualified school personnel and program administrators have access to them.

According to Bell, when any of the 97,500 JCPS students enrolled in before- and after-school programs enter a facility, their information already is pre-loaded into the system. All they have to do is scan their card, and the system can track how long they’re there and how often they attend, he said.

School administrators then can cross-reference these attendance data with updated student performance records to determine whether participation in before- and after-school programs plays a role in increased achievement, he said. Currently, the district estimates as many as 13,000 students participate in some form of before- or after-school program where the cards are being used.

When asked about potential privacy concerns that would evolve from making personal student data more easily accessible to volunteers and program directors outside the school system, Bell said all parents are given a confidentiality and disclosure agreement to sign before their child’s information is loaded into the system.

Out of the more than 2,600 JCPS students currently enrolled in Boys & Girls Clubs programs in the district, he said, just four parents so far have declined to make this information available to program administrators.

“By and large, parents enroll their kids in these programs because they want them helped,” he said, noting that’s the aim of this initiative.

nFocus President Ananda Roberts agreed with Bell’s assessment. Though Louisville is the only school district in the nation currently using her system in such a way, she said the company has received very few complaints from parents who fear that privacy concerns outweigh the need to provide more accountability in before- and after-school programs, many of which have struggled for years to keep track of student attendance and other critical data while being forced to operate on shoestring budgets.

In Louisville, Bell said, participating programs have had little difficulty securing the necessary funding to support the rollout of the KidTrax system.

With an estimated price tag of approximately $3,000 per facility, he said, the equipment–including building scanners and software–is largely affordable, even for most nonprofit organizations. There also is a $449 annual fee for data hosting, tech support, and software updates to the system, according to nFocus.

In some cases, Bell said, the organizations running these after-school programs–including the American Way and others like it–are starting to write the cost of KidTrax into their grant applications, so that when they apply for funding, the cost of the system is already included in the proposal.

From the school system’s point of view, he said, the cost to participate is “minimal.” Because the data warehouse already was in place, JCPS officials had only to tie the KidTrax system into their existing infrastructure and make sure there were enough employees on staff to help monitor and maintain the system.

“We have some staff that spend time on it,” said Bell of the KidTrax database, but most of these employees divide their time between this system and other tasks, making it difficult to put an exact figure on the cost to the district.

So, is the KidTrax system helping school officials validate the importance of before- and after-school programs for students?

From an attendance standpoint, Bell said, yes.

“We have determined that if a student participates in an after-school program more than four times a year, then [his or her] overall attendance at school also improves,” he said.

Does participation also translate into improved performance? “It’s still a little too early to tell,” he said. Even so, the program holds enough promise that the district plans to continue developing new ways to use the data it gleans from the system.


Jefferson County Public Schools

nFocus Software

Boys & Girls Clubs of America

The Salvation Army

eSchool News Staff

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