Public Policy Forum Blog

Full-time Research That Benefits At-Risk Youth

Synergy, according to the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, is the increased effectiveness that results when two or more people or businesses work together. It exists in business ventures and public-private collaborations, and even amongst non-profits; however it is rarely seen amongst public agencies. This is why I want to discuss a highlight of a trip I recently took.

Last month, my colleagues and I had the privilege of attending the Governmental Research Association's annual policy conference in Pittsburgh. During our first full day, we heard from an education analyst at Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services (DHS), who discussed a public-public collaboration between Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Public Schools that began in 2010. Essentially, it is a data sharing partnership between the two agencies, where the DHS’ Office of Data Analysis, Research, and Evaluation (DARE) integrates school district data with DHS data to discover strategies and/or interventions to improve instruction and student performance. It is important to note that data can be shared only with the written consent of the parent/legal guardian of the child.

Currently, Allegheny County’s partnerships include 20 school districts, each with memorandums of understanding with the County. The districts share student data, including demographics and academic achievement, while DHS shares back child welfare and homelessness data. DARE then analyzes the data to discover challenges and opportunities to help districts get an understanding of what some of their students may be going through, such as homelessness, domestic abuse, or hunger.

For perspective: As of 2015-2016, 45% of youth in partner districts had prior involvement with DHS, while 56% had prior involvement with the human service system, as a whole. This tells us that DHS and partner school districts serve many of the same children. This makes data-sharing crucial for more positive outcomes for these children, many of whom are going through stressful situations that are distractions from learning.

The list of projects that have developed under these partnerships include the following:

  • Bridging the gap between government and schools to improve the experiences for students living in housing crises
  • Disproportionality in schools – assessing outcomes by race, gender, geography, and services utilized
  • Understanding service pathways for older students (crossover youth – studying the child welfare to juvenile probation “pipeline”)
  • School mobility – examining transient students in Allegheny County
  • Highlighting behavioral health service usage and needs in schools

Milwaukee County’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has a service array that is similar to that of Allegheny County’s DHS, especially in relation to children. And, given the linkage between poverty and social service needs, the fact that 83% of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) students qualify for free or reduced lunch suggests that the department serves many of the same children who attend MPS.

As in Allegheny County, data sharing between DHHS and MPS could be beneficial in understanding the challenges involved in serving the children who are touched by both entities. For example, if there is a student whose family has applied for a Section 8 voucher and has been placed on the waiting list, the student’s school may value that information, since the likelihood of having to deal with an eviction is much higher than with other students.

There also would be possibilities for research to better understand student behaviors and stressors, and how those can relate to school attendance and performance. Much of this can lead to predictive analytics, as has become the case for Allegheny County’s DHS.  Allegheny County’s efforts to increase synergy among public agencies should lead to consideration of the advantages that might come with a similar effort in Milwaukee. It seems like common sense for two public agencies, which serve or have a direct impact on many of the same youth, to share data for the purpose of helping each partner better understand those they serve. 

Ben Juarez