It was only about two years ago that human services caseworkers were still in the dark when it came to knowing how any of the Pittsburgh Public Schools students whose cases they worked were performing in class or even whether they attended school regularly.
Likewise, city public school officials had no reliable way to keep track of how many of their students were in the human services system, let alone which students were getting services for circumstances, such as homelessness, that can influence their school performance. The problem wasn’t neglect, but legal barriers to sharing data contained in federal and state confidentiality laws.
Those barriers were largely overcome with the signing of a novel legal agreement between the city public schools and DHS that allowed them to integrate their data on students who receive human services. Over the past two years, it has inspired a level of collaboration and insight into the lives and needs of the students that has exceeded initial expectations. In light of such outcomes, the agreement was recently renewed and revised following legal negotiations that were less challenging and protracted than those that led to the signing of the first memorandum of understanding between the city public schools and DHS.
Moreover, the Clairton, Woodland Hills, and Elizabeth Forward school districts recently signed similar data-sharing agreements with DHS and negotiations are underway with several other Allegheny County public school districts where significant numbers of students receive human services.
In general, the agreement allows student data ranging from personal identifiers to grades, attendance, and disciplinary action to be integrated in the DHS data warehouse, which contains data specific to services, such as child welfare, mental health, and homelessness, as well as juvenile justice information. A key provision authorizes the use of the data to conduct an "action research" project — a problem-solving process in which DHS and school districts work toward improving the way they address certain issues involving students of mutual interest.
Almost immediately, the pact led to a fuller understanding of city public school students involved in human services. A preliminary analysis of the integrated data revealed, for example, that 14,450 students — about 53 percent of district enrollment — had prior involvement with at least one of 17 human service programs and that 36 percent of those students received services within the last year. Families of 34 percent of students in the district received support services, including food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families support. The shared data also revealed academic achievement gaps among city public school students involved in human services and those who do not receive services. The insights gleaned from the integrated data have given school guidance counselors, child welfare caseworkers, judges, and others a more complete picture of city public school students in the human services and juvenile justice systems. And it has helped inform new collaborative interventions.
Analysis of the data, for example, identified more than 700 students who scored proficient or above on the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment reading and math test, but were performing poorly in class. It lead to a collaborative effort among DHS and school personnel to design a pilot after-school program for more than 30 such students aimed at improving their grades, school attendance, and academic ambitions.
More recently, access to integrated school, human services, and juvenile justice data helped inform a new project for curbing truancy, which identifies students who miss school, investigates the reasons they do, and attempts to intervene early to correct the problem. The shared data has contributed in other ways, as well.
Data-sharing capabilities, for example, helped DHS win an Annie E. Casey Foundation grant to develop software to help make better-informed child welfare placements so children have a better chance of being placed in neighborhoods where they can continue to attend the same schools and avoid disrupting their education.