Facts Machine

New city database will help schools get a handle on kids' problems

The City of Phoenix has found a cheap and efficient way to quantify the interplay between social forces and social services in the public schools within city boundaries.

There are 292 schools in Phoenix in 25 elementary and high school districts, districts whose boundaries overlap the city boundaries, zip code boundaries, even city council boundaries, which makes them difficult to track.

The city council has allocated $40,000 to develop the Phoenix Education and Youth System, PEYS for short.

The computer database, which is expected to be finished within the year, will correlate census data, police statistics and city services to each district or school's attendance area.

PEYS would use the city's existing Geographic Information System--essentially a computerized grid that maps water and sewer lines, bus and garbage-truck routes, neighborhood data, police precincts, parks and other services and links them with census data.

PEYS will superimpose the schools grid on that system, and add in several "key indicators," such as juvenile crime, domestic violence and teen pregnancy.

The city has about 90 after-school programs in the schools, and wants to take more of a role in helping schools with problems in their neighborhoods, says Debbie Dillon, the city's youth and education program director.

"We have school resource officers assigned by police precincts," she says. "The schools have been after us to increase our communication between the police department and the schools when there are issues going on in the neighborhood."

The police department sends D.A.R.E. officers to schools, the fire department teaches urban-survival skills and the parks department runs programs on school grounds.

The census demographics and the crime stats can help the city decide which schools in which neighborhoods might better benefit from those programs.

Data on drug busts will bring more D.A.R.E. programs. High absenteeism may step up truancy programs, and so on.

"We hope to be creative," Dillon says. "If there's a school that has a high rate of domestic violence, maybe we ought to be thinking about having more sports programs for girls."

Dillon expects to make the data available to the general public on the Internet and to schools via CD-ROM.

School officials can hardly wait.
"I think it's going to help us in writing grants," says Dr. Linda South, superintendent of the Balsz elementary-school district in central Phoenix. "Ninety percent of our children live in poverty, so we write a lot of grants to try to get assistance."

In many instances, the database would allow districts to use census and police stats to quantify what they already know about the neighborhoods they draw from.

"We need after-school programs," South continues. "If we can provide a safe place for children, they will not be out there when bad things are happening. We will be able to provide activities for them so they're not out getting into trouble."

South also points out that the city data can help with such tasks as planning school-bus routes, tasks that would otherwise require the district to purchase expensive software it can't afford.

"I can produce any kind of data you want within my system," says Dr. Robert Donofrio, superintendent of the Murphy school district on the city's southwest side.

"But if you asked me how many housing starts were in my area or what's the projected population 10 years down the road, I would be very hard-pressed to do that. I would probably have to call in a consultant. How many police calls in a particular neighborhood? How many babies per household? The list is endless."

Furthermore, Donofrio explains, juvenile-crime statistics are broken down by zip code, an area larger than his district; the PEYS system would allow him not only to look specifically at each school attendance area, but to see how many of those crimes were serious and how many were simply curfew violations.

Whether that information will actually help Donofrio or other superintendents pry money out of the state remains to be seen.

"I'm hopeful that there's at least going to be a movement in the right direction to a new social conscience about what has happened to social programs for children, youth and families," he says. "I may be overly optimistic, but I just can't fathom it getting any worse.

 
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