Plastic Card Tells A Dangerous Truth

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Chicago—A couple years ago, managers at the Gen. Robert E. Wood Boys & Girls Club began begging for money to hire more staff, saying they had a waiting list of 75 youths but not enough workers to handle them. Officials at downtown headquarters nodded sympathetically.

Then a little plastic card changed everything.

The bar-coded ID card was held up by every one of the scores of kids who streamed past the club’s front desk one recent Friday after school. As the youths flashed the cards in front of an optical scanner, like the ones used in grocery stores, a cartoon character on a computer screen welcomed them while the computer recorded their entry.

With attendance data from this system showing that the club was maxed out, the club got money from headquarters last year to hire more staff, including a lifeguard, a physical education director and an office secretary.

“Downtown can look at how many kids we had that day, and look at how that compares with other clubs, and divert resources from other clubs that might not have such a high attendance,” says club director Victor Ceballos.

But what technology gives, it takes away: The system helped reveal scant attendance at two other local Boys & Girls Clubs, which closed last year. “It was certainly something the agency anguished over,” says Dennis Chudoba, senior vice president of field operations for the Chicago regional office. “I don’t like closing programs.”

That’s the promise and the risk of computerized tracking programs, which are helping more youth agencies not only collect attendance data, but analyze such things as which activities are popular (or not) with which types of kids, which age groups use the clubs most during various times of the day, and the racial, economic and geographic backgrounds of the youth.

Introduced about a decade ago, such programs have spread rapidly in the past few years as the technology has advanced, and as more youth agency boards and funders insist on their use. The apparent market leader, a program called KidTrax, reports 2,300 licensees, including 1,500 Boys & Girls Clubs, 125 Police Activities League sites and 75 Salvation Army youth clubs. The Illinois Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs requires its approximately 50 agency members to use KidTrax in order to report performance measurements to one of their funders, the state Department of Human Services.

The spread of these programs reflects philosophical shifts as well as advances in technology.

“Most nonprofits asked the question, why would they want to track anything?” says Ananda Roberts, president of nFocus Software, the Phoenix-based company that makes KidTrax. “Now people call us because they know they need to track. …
Nonprofits understand they need this information, both for management purposes and for information back to the funders.”

When it debuted in 1994, KidTrax faced technological hurdles such as clunky scanners and the rather listless Windows 3.1 operating system, Roberts says. The program runs much smoother these days, thanks to more flexible optical technology, more robust computer operating systems and the software’s Web-based platform, introduced in 2001.

Vision Computer Programming, based in Tampa, Fla., also produces a tracking product for youth agencies, called the Member Tracking System. Perry Cooper, senior director of growth and collaboration strategies for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, (BACA), says several “mom-and-pop software companies” produce more generic membership tracking products.

Agency managers say these products help them better focus and market their services and impress funders with their accomplishments. But they acknowledge the risk: The software can document that a youth facility is not serving as many kids, or the types of kids, that agency boards or funders might have thought.

Consider the tale of the clubs in Chicago.

The Primary Tool for Tracking

Every week, attendance reports from the 15 clubs under the BGCA of Chicago regional office are reviewed. Kids at those clubs may still sign in at the front desks, as they do at the Wood club, but they also scan their KidTrax cards – thereby producing “the only numbers we accept” for attendance data, says Harvey Ortega, director of management information systems for the regional office.

The clubs don’t just count kids who walk through the door; card scanners in various rooms track participation in specific activities. At the Wood club, attended primarily by Hispanic kids from the Little Village neighborhood on Chicago’s southwest side, kids scan their cards when they enter the library, art room and computer center.

KidTrax can massage the numbers into some 150 tracking reports. The regional office routinely pulls reports that show age, ethnicity, gender and family income level of the kids, Ortega says. The data help administrators look at teeming clubs to see what’s working, and at emptier clubs to see why they’re not drawing more kids.

“Like any business, you want to be able to identify your clients and customers” by categories like age and gender, says Joe Lehr, who recently retired as Midwest regional vice president for BGCA. “And also be able to understand your peak days of the week and peak times of the day, and give you some idea of how to maximize your facilities.”

The information can also be used to adjust programming and staffing.

It has “allowed us to zero in on programming for specific needs,” says Don Shaw, executive director of the Louisville, Ky., Salvation Army, which runs several Boys & Girls Clubs. “We found some numbers that shocked me. My 11th graders’ attendance at one of my clubs is horrific. I’ve let that club director know that his attendance is bad, and he’s looking for ways to improve that.”

In Chicago, the software enabled the Wood club to see a few years back that the 6- to 7-year-old age group was its largest, so the club was ready as the numbers of 8- to 10-year-olds rose over the following years.

“I would like to see these scanners put in all rooms,” Ceballos says. “In the gym, we could try to figure out, when is the peak time? How many girls are there? Who’s attending during volleyball? And then compare that with the gym teacher’s schedule.”
Each club in the Chicago region has just three in-room scanners, in addition to the front-door tracker, because headquarters can’t afford more, Ortega says. They cost $500 apiece, on top of $1,850 to $2,250 per license.

Impressing the Money People

Perhaps just as important as adjusting programming, agency managers believe the data help them get funding and then keep funders happy:

• In Louisville, the tracking system helped clubs document something that youth agencies often struggle to prove with data: that their work produces results.

Five Boys & Girls Clubs run by the Salvation Army use KidTrax, along with “middle-ware” developed by University of Louisville business school students, to track the academic performance and disciplinary problems among youth who attend the clubs.

The data show improvements in grades, attendance and behavior among kids who attend, says Greg Hudelson, community investment specialist for the United Way of Louisville, a key Salvation Army funder. “The Salvation Army ... can draw the correlation between kids who come in once a week vs. those who come two or three times a week,” he says. “It shows that those kids who are more active and involved in the clubs do much better” in school.

Shaw, the local Salvation Army executive director, says tracking software has allowed him to tell funders, for example, that “we’re going to decrease [school] suspensions with the kids we serve by 90 percent.” The club will compare the suspension records of specific youth before joining and after participating for a year.

• The California state Police Activities League has purchased 75 KidTrax software licenses to distribute to member agencies, and plans to require that all 110 members use the software by the end of next year.

“We do not think people in our community believed how many kids we were catering to,” says Eric Scoville, director of the El Centro PAL, which started using the software about a year ago – and found out it had 1,200 members in a city of 40,000 people. “It let them see, ‘You know what? Eric’s not making up numbers.’ ”

Todd Browning, chief of the juvenile justice and delinquency prevention branch in the California Office of Criminal Justice Planning, which funds the PAL sites, says the performance measurement functions of tracking systems improve an agency’s chances of getting funded. Without such a system, he says, “it’s quite often difficult for them to track how many kids are coming in each day” in each age group.

• The smaller player in this field so far, the Member Tracking System from Vision Computer Programming, is used by nearly 300 Boys & Girls Clubs, says Vision’s marketing director, Zenith Mulkerin. The software offers about 70 types of reports and costs $1,750 for a license and one scanner, $650 for each additional license, and $300 for each additional scanner.

“Every time we’re writing a grant for funding, I’m pulling some numbers out of that thing,” says Lisa Hiscock, director of curriculum for the Collier County Boys & Girls Club in Naples, Fla. In applying for an arts grant, Hiscock tracked how many hours of art classes the club offers and how many kids attend.

But when it comes to showing numbers to funders, there’s a flip side.

The Truth Can Hurt

It didn’t take a computer program to see that the Robert Taylor Boys & Girls Club, near a notorious project in Chicago, and the George Eisenberg club, near a former housing project, were in critical condition. Just by visiting, it was clear that “there were no kids in the clubs,” says Chudoba, the regional vice president.

KidTrax data and statistics from the city of Chicago showing the demographic fallout from the implosion of the public housing developments helped the regional office confirm that the two clubs should be closed.

“It costs too much to have stand-alone clubs” in areas with few youth, Ceballos says, “but you don’t want to abandon those kids.” He says the regional office opened a smaller facility in a school near one of the closed clubs, while kids from the other one were referred to other youth agencies.

As for the staff, Chudoba says the regional office reassigned “people who were competent, who we felt had a future with the agency,” while “three or four people” were laid off.

Agencies report varying degrees of nervousness about the possibility that tracking data might be unfavorable and could hurt them with funders. The data could, for instance, document the persistent struggle that agencies have in drawing teenagers.

“There seems to be some tendency for [teens] to get more involved in high school activities or in jobs,” notes Tom Finley, executive director of the Illinois Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs.

“Absolutely, there is some of that resistance in the marketplace,” says Roberts of nFocus Software. When “all of a sudden numbers are different or information is different from what you’ve been reporting, you’ve got to have one of those sit-down meetings and decide, where do you go from here?”

Agency leaders and funders say they’ve tried to calm such jitters by emphasizing that the measurements will not lead to program cuts – at first.

“The clubs are not under the gun here to bring up the numbers to where they thought they were” before the system was instituted, says Ortega of the Chicago region BGCA. “We know right now what the reality is [as far as numbers go], and we’re just looking to build onto that.”

Yet if an agency relies on outside funding, “you could be afraid,” says Shaw of the Louisville Salvation Army. He says the United Way has reassured him it will not de-fund programs based on the new data – “except for four or five years down the road, if those weaknesses have not taken care of.”

Howard Mason, director of community building for the Louisville United Way, praises Shaw for championing the software. “It was something of a sell to his staff, who thought that this would put their funding in jeopardy,” he says. “It always is risky to know more about how much you’re doing and how well you’re doing it. We’ve tried to be clear that we’re not going to be punitive about what they learn.”

Nevertheless, he says, “If they’ve tried everything they can, and here’s an intervention that has exhausted its imagination and the best practices in its field, and only can go so far, then we have to start talking about why.”

In Illinois, Finley says the data have helped some Boys & Girls Club show specific participation by teens. “We can show that they’ve spent so much time on life skills, or so much time on educational programs,” he says.

The computerized data should also make it difficult for agencies to fudge participation numbers. But could the slick, professional-looking reports produced through these programs be used to show cooked-up data?

“The potential for falsifying reports is there,” Ceballos says. “But even if you didn’t have that system, you still could do it. I guess the check-and-balance is that [regional] supervisors can always come. The daily average attendance in a week shouldn’t fluctuate that much.”

Hudelson of the Louisville United Way says the system ensures that the participation data are gathered scientifically.

“A lot of these other organizations are using surveys that they’re sending out to parents of children who participate,” he says. “If you send out 200 or 300 of these surveys, chances are the parents of the child who likes the program the most are probably going to send the survey back.”

Thus the numbers reported through computer tracking should tell a more honest story – for better or for worse.