For any adolescent released from the Alameda County’s Juvenile Justice Center, stepping out onto Fairmont Drive free as a bird must be an incredible feeling. But integration back into mainstream society is fraught with obstacles that could easily land these young men and women back on the wrong side of the jailhouse bars.
Among the most daunting of obstacles is getting youth reenrolled in school.
“In the past, when youth were released, weeks and months would go by before youth got back in school. It just wasn’t a smooth transition,” Dyanna Christie, Violence Prevention Planner at Oakland Unite said.
But the problem isn’t just getting youth enrolled in school. Christie says that getting them enrolled in the right school, so they stay in school and out of juvenile hall, is even more important. “If they go back to their original school, that puts them in same situation they were in before,” she said.
Over the past three years, Christie has been involved with a team at Oakland Unite, a collaboration that involves members from neighborhoods, government and grass roots organizations to advance peace and public safety, to develop an electronic data sharing program to better serve Oakland’s youth and reduce the rate of recidivism.
Key to their system is funding a position through the Oakland Unified School District that places a former principle on site at the Juvenile Justice Center responsible for enrolling youth in school before they even leave the facility. Doing so has placed students in classrooms within a day or two instead of months.
“We’re not just sending youth off, we’re making sure connections are made,” Christie said, but after enrollment is when the data sharing kicks in.
Oakland Unite operates a database through Cityspan, a national social services software company. Through their database, Oakland Unite has created a data-sharing plan with the Oakland Unified School District that shares detailed attendance records, including daily attendance, period-by-period attendance and any suspensions, as well as academic performance information all updated automatically and nightly.
“Case managers can have 15-20 kids, so they can’t go get attendance records everyday for every kid. They just don’t have the resources to do it in real time,” Christie said. “Now, they are really informed about what has been going on so they can ask students and not just listen.”
According to Christie, this not only helps case managers do their jobs, but also is beneficial to students, supporting success and reducing recidivism.
“Youth speak really highly of case managers who know what is going on with them. They really feel cared about instead of feeling disconnected,” she said. “Participants who have succeeded in turning their lives around emphasize that the case manager’s persistence in reaching out to them and being on top of their attendance and school engagement is a huge part of what made them ultimately feel cared about and become willing to invest in themselves because of it.”
Oakland Unite serves between 600 and 800 youth annually who are released from Alameda County’s juvenile justice system, and claims more than three-quarters of their participants don’t return.
Yet the road to success wasn’t easy, and nearly didn’t happen.
“It’s been a dream that never seemed possible,” Christie said. “I’m surprised we pulled it off, and it’s an unprecedented example because people don’t like to share data.” According to Christie, worry over data sharing comes from both ends: those whose data is shared, and the organizations who hold the data.
Organizations can be shy with their data because, as Christie points out, it frankly isn’t always that good. “Public system data is often a little bit messy, and they try to protect themselves from that scrutiny,” she said. “For me, we need to find a way to work with what we got instead of doing nothing at all.”
People, on the other hand, are worried about sharing their own data for privacy reasons. Data doesn’t have the best record of being used for the proper reasons or protected by those it was originally given to.
But Oakland Unite has gone to great lengths to secure the privacy of their students, including contracts and confidentiality agreements, limits on what data is available and who sees it, and the youth themselves have signed consent forms regarding the use of their data.
Despite the worries about data sharing, Oakland Unite feels the benefits to their organization and the youth they serve far outweigh the potential for criticism, and sees the opportunity to intervene with a student before a small problem becomes a big one a huge asset in student success.
“The way we did things before, we had our case management organizations school based and looking for a certain population: the shooters, perpetrators of crime in schools and those returning to juvenile hall,” Mark Henderson of Oakland Unite said. “We’ve received criticism from time to time that we were sending people to case managers that didn’t have the most need, that we weren’t reaching the folks we were supposed to. Then, there was no sharing going on, tech or otherwise. Now, we can say 100 percent we’re serving the folks we need to serve.”