Just four years ago, Rita McCord couldn’t tell how the kids at Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs of Louisville were doing in math class at school. She was surprised to found out recently that more than half were below grade level.
Youth workers in Louisville’s after-school programs are learning a lot about the academic needs of their youths these days, thanks to a breakthrough data-sharing system between the agencies and the public school district. The system can connect 86 programs to school data on grades, behavior and attendance using Kidtrax, a brand of software used in many after-school programs.
It’s a data-sharing arrangement that after-school advocates would like to see elsewhere. “So many after-school programs are expected to help improve the academic achievement of the students,” says Jen Rinehart, vice president of policy and research at the After School Alliance, a national advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.. “They need to know certain information about kids that only the school has.”
After a rocky start, the arrangement is beginning to pay off, so much so that the city makes after-school funding contingent on buying Kidtrax. Such a requirement might pose an extra burden on cash-strapped agencies, but it’s drawing public praise so far.
“It’s not a common practice throughout the country” to tie after-school funding to requirements for how to administer programs, says Peter Howe, chief operating officer of the National AfterSchool Association. “The city’s taking a bold move. Part of me gives them a lot of credit for doing that.”
ID-ing the Need
The experiment stems from regular meetings that after-school administrators hold with Marty Bell, deputy superintendent of schools for Jefferson County, which is composed of Louisville’s 98,000 public school students. At a meeting in 2002, Bell recalls, they discussed mutual goals that would be better met with cooperative efforts.
The group honed in on a common agenda, he says: “Kids being able to read and write; not dropping out; and being prepared later in life.”
After-school leaders told Bell they needed better information about what was going on in school with kids who came to their programs. “They needed information on [things like] attendance, math performance,” Bell says. “Some in the past would ask kids to bring in report cards, and you know that is going to be hit or miss.”
He asked the information technology department at the University of Louisville’s School of Business to take on the problem. The department created a bridge system that Bell calls “middleware.” It takes student information from the school district’s mainframe computer and moves it to another point, from which after-school programs can access it.
Needing the ID
There was still a missing piece: The after-school partners needed a way to receive that information and to convey program participation rates back to the schools.
Don Shaw, CEO of the Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs of Louisville, told Bell that such a system already existed. His nonprofit had just gotten an earmark through U.S. Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) to buy Kidtrax, a system produced by nFocus to track attendance and participation at youth programs. (See “Plastic Cards Tell a Dangerous Truth,” July 2003.)
The Phoenix-based nFocus says 3,500 organizations now pay for Kidtrax services, up from 2,300 in 2003.
The system created to connect Louisville’s after-school programs with the schools was a first for nFocus. Here’s how it works:
1. A “bridge” program ferries selected information from the public school database to another database managed by Kidtrax. The information includes updated scores about standardized reading and math tests, attendance records and behavioral infractions, such as suspensions.
2. An after-school program purchases the Kidtrax system from nFocus. The cost is $2,700 the first year, with ongoing annual fees of $449 for hosting and technical support.
3. The youth agency gets permission from parents to enter a new participant into Kidtrax. The youth gets a Kidtrax ID card to scan each time she comes to a program.
4. Once registered into Kidtrax, the youth’s school information from the database is available to the after-school program, and her after-school attendance information is available to the school.
The system is not foolproof. Bell says human error rendered the first two years of data collection useless. “Many folks working at CBOs have not had tech experience,” he says. “You’re talking in some cases about volunteers and low-paid staff.”
Regular online training courses have taken care of some organizations’ problems. But there are still questions about how many programs are using the system, vs. simply purchasing it to remain eligible for city funding. About 30,000 youth have been registered into Louisville after-school programs using Kidtrax, according to McCord, director of program development at the nine Salvation Army clubs. But Bell says that after-school programs have uploaded information about only 13,000 youth.
There’s also an opportunity for misuse. One YMCA with Kidtrax software was found to have kept all of the youths’ ID cards and swiped them through every day, whether a youth was there or not, says Ananda Roberts, founder and president of nFocus. “It isn’t a security system,” she concedes. “If someone wants to use it in that way, they have bigger problems than [Kidtrax] can help them with.”
She and Bell say nothing like that has happened in Louisville.
Participants say the data-sharing system has helped after-school programs tailor their efforts and demonstrate results. “It helps programs refocus what they’re doing,” Bell says. Without the system, “most after-school programs don’t know a child has a reading problem, or don’t know they’re not strong in math.”
For example, Louisville’s Every 1 Reads initiative attempts to get all youth reading at grade level as measured by state standardized tests. State standardized tests show that the citywide initiative has not produced significant improvements in its first three years. But interim reading tests given by the city show that, of the 1,974 youths in after-school programs who read below grade level last year, 57 percent improved to grade level.
At the Salvation Army clubs, McCord used the system to chart her organization’s success during the initiative. The percentage of participants who were below grade level in reading dropped from 25 to 14, she says.
She also used the school data to decide on the clubs’ newest project: helping the staggering 52 percent of its participants who scored below grade level in math. She also discovered that the actual tally of club participants who receive free and reduced price lunches in school was 81 percent, not the 64 percent she had estimated from U.S. Census data.
Despite the benefits, making programs buy certain products in order to receive city grants can be “a slippery slope,” says Howe of the National AfterSchool Association, which focuses on improving programs through accreditation. He says that even spending an extra “$100 is a significant amount for lots of urban after-school programs.”
(In Louisville, the city includes money for the initial purchase in its grants, Bell says. Roberts says the local Metro United Way has helped programs that don’t get those grants procure Kidtrax.)
The wheels are in motion for expansion. Bell and Roberts will make a presentation about the partnership at an American Youth Policy Forum event in Washington this month. Roberts says she is talking with school districts in three states about creating systems similar to Louisville’s. In Georgia, John Hurlbut, administrative controller of the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, says he is trying to connect clubs in the city’s peripheral counties with schools.