A little knowledge is going a long way to help Pittsburgh Public Schools and other local districts pinpoint kids who are most vulnerable to falling behind or dropping out of school, and in devising early interventions.
Before 2010, the city school district didn't know how many of their kids were involved with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services' Office of Children, Youth and Families, which helps when youngsters are abused or neglected and sometimes separated from their families. But Erin Dalton, deputy director of DHS's Office of Data Analysis, Research, and Evaluation, credits Frederick W. Thieman, president of the Buhl Foundation, with bringing her agency and the school district together that year in their mutual quest to find better ways to serve local youth.
As a DHS report
released just before the current school year says:
"While the protective benefits of involvement in the child welfare system are well documented, there is increasing recognition that the unstable family living situations and/or frequent placement changes experienced by children in this system can result in delays in school enrollment, increases in absenteeism, disruptive school changes and lack of continuity in curricula. These factors, in turn, are associated with negative school outcomes such as higher rates of dropout and truancy, lower achievement and increased risk of assignment to alternative school placements, and failure to receive critical special education services."
Previously, says Samantha Murphy, education liaison in the executive office of DHS, school districts have studied school absenteeism by looking at other possible contributing factors, such as children's gender or race. "Now it's a different conversation we're able to have," she says. The shared information allows the district and DHS to know whether the kids they have in common are absent or tardy, "so that our workers don't have to wait until there are 20 absences and a magistrate's hearing to intervene," Dalton says.
To help correct student attendance problems and subsequent achievement shortfalls, DHS and the district first targeted middle-school kids who got high scores on achievement tests but had low attendance and low grade-point averages. The idea of this effort, which lasted from 2011 until this year, was to take these smart kids and give them a different peer group and a challenging program at the gifted center in the city's West End, so "it would give them a different message about their future," Dalton says.
The trouble was, she reports, "the kids weren't coming here often enough to expect a change" in their grades. Now the effort is aiming higher, she says, with after-school programs already having impacts on attendance and grades. This "Focus on Attendance" initiative kicked off in the 2012-13 school year. A school outreach specialist was hired for two district K-8 schools, working with staff as well as with 170 kids who missed too much school. The specialists involved the kids' families as well, and saw improved attendance as a result. The district also is emphasizing getting kids registered for kindergarten on time, making certain these children get on track from the very beginning of school.
DHS is now working with and sharing data with nine districts. "The relationships we're making between service providers and schools is really invaluable," says Murphy.
"We were among the first" to share data between the child-welfare office and school districts, notes Dalton. "Now, it's like, if you're not doing it, why aren't you working on that?"
Writer: Marty Levine
Sources: Erin Dalton and Samantha Murphy, Department of Human Services