Using global positioning systems (GPSs) and other geospatial data isn't new to school districts. The geocoding of student addresses to identify matriculation paths has been a component of student information systems for years. Districts are replete with examples of teachers using geospatial data sources in their lesson plans. Most schools routinely use theft prevention software to protect mobile computing devices. Some districts' transportation departments even have replaced bus radios with GPS-enabled, push-to-talk cell phones.
As beneficial as these support systems are, little has been done systemically to leverage GPS and spatial data to directly impact student achievement.
In early 2011, California's Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) tested these waters, initiating a pilot program that aimed to improve the attendance and achievement of students with chronic truancy issues by using mentoring and cell phone technologies (including GPS). The bulk of the voluntary program, which ran during the second semester in six-week increments, focused on mentoring, with the remaining 20 percent dedicated to the monitoring of students. Participants never met face to face with their mentors, engaging with them strictly via GPS-enabled cell phone conversations, which were recorded.
A Collaborative Effort
A student's school attendance impacts many community stakeholders, beginning with the student and his or her parents. Daily attendance also affects administrators, teachers and staff. When absences become excessive, they are classified as a truancy issue, which triggers law enforcement and judicial system involvement. Ultimately, if habitual truants drop out of school and then engage in criminal behavior, the community at large is affected.
The implementation of a truancy system — particularly one that introduces something as potentially controversial as GPS tracking — requires careful consideration on many fronts.
The following are some tips to heed if your district is planning a similar effort.
Engage your stakeholders. All appropriate stakeholders should be involved in the discussion from the beginning so that there are shared objectives, a consistent message and an alignment of goals. In our case, that meant getting organizers of the Anaheim Police Department's Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership (GRIP) program, prospective student participants and their parents to agree to the parameters of the GRIP program before we began mentoring and monitoring participants.
Also in this Issue
For more on the methods that schools are employing to prevent theft and recover stolen computing devices, see "Protect and Serve."
Consider the ramifications. Reading your district's board policies and administrative procedures can help establish boundaries with respect to operating protocol. Local, state and federal laws also should be reviewed. You may want to consult, too, with legal counsel or the business department.
Select the right partner(s). Make sure the vendors you work with can meet your needs within your budget. Following competitive procurement processes will help your district define its objectives and requirements. This way, vendors present their solutions to you in the manner (and time frame) in which you wish to consider them.
Assess program sustainability. Programs cost money, so conduct a thorough assessment of whether a potential program can be sustained. Consider both the likely return on investment and total cost of ownership before taking the plunge. Don't forget to account for staffing, services and equipment costs as part of this exercise.
Communicate. If education doesn't innovate, it will stagnate. It's crucial to communicate all changes in programs, procedures, methodologies and pedagogies to all affected stakeholders. Engage your public information officer. Encourage parents to use the "comments" section on district report cards and progress reports. Consider using social networking sites. And leverage websites (yours and others') to get your message out.
Here and Now
Data from the two district schools that participated in the Anaheim pilot program confirmed the merits of the mentoring/monitoring approach. Average attendance among program participants jumped from 81 percent before the program launched to 96 percent at its conclusion. Grades improved as well, with a second-semester average increase of 31 percent over first-semester grade point averages.
Erik Greenwood is director of education and information technology for the Anaheim Union High School District in Anaheim, Calif.