Waco schools collect data to help students in need

By Jordan Corona

Waco Independent School District counts homelessness like no other.

Last spring, the district became the first in the state to use a federally endorsed confidential information system to collect and pool information about students who are referred to social services.

The Homeless Management Information System, also known as Bowman System’s Service Point Software, was mandated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to correlate HUD funding to a more precise, statistical idea of who it actually helps, said Katie Fager, Waco HMIS program analyst.

Though Waco ISD does not receive HUD funding, she said it volunteered its participation last April. It went into effect this academic term.

Cheryl Pooler, WISD supervisor for social work, said the districts’ participation in the information system means a current identification network is available to students who don’t have a home.

“We want to make sure that if they start school, they finish school and we want to get them caught up and supported,” Pooler said.

Also, she said it’s helping document a real problem affecting area minors.

“We’re documenting there is a shortage of housing,” Pooler said.

“There’s a desperate need in this community for transitional housing or something more stable and long term, for kids who are too young to live in a homeless shelter,” Pooler said.

It’s not just homeless students who need assistance. That’s why in context of the school system, Pooler said, it is called the Community Management Information System.

Students volunteer their information to be in the system when being referred to social services. Pooler said the students are told what the system is before they volunteer the information.

“It’s helping us look at if there are gaps in services that are provided to families on our community,” she said.

The information system numbers students who qualify for social services and voluntarily contribute their personal information to the system. The web-based software notes what services school officials directed them to.

“Poverty didn’t get here overnight, and it won’t go away overnight,” Pooler said. “But funding can.”

The information system is a tool that records personal information. It’s designed to report who uses social services and how often.

The aggregate data it offers is useful for grant applications and many service organizations see its potential to inform a less isolated, more communal approach to addressing poverty issues.

Part of its function, as a data pool, is to inform organizations. They do this using the data sourced from the participating organizations themselves. Every participant gets access to the information everyone else opts to make available via their specific privacy settings.

Fager said the Community Management Information System administration decides those privacy settings specific to an organization’s confidentiality needs, goals and whether or not the organization receives HUD funding.

Currently, there are 14 services that have adopted the system from the city. Waco CMIS administrator Jennifer Caballero said most of the participating organizations receive HUD funding.

She said WISD is mostly using the database to understand its homeless student population better. Even then, their privacy settings are such that students’ information is not visible to other system users.

Caballero is one of two system administrators at the city level.

They are the only city employees with access to community management information, and have the authority to revoke authorized personnel from their license-access to system information if it is misused.

“Any time someone shares information with anyone outside their work responsibility, that’s a breach of confidence,” Caballero said.

She said besides a number of internal accountability measures, there are two legal agreements between the city and WISD to prohibit inappropriate use of the student information.

A memorandum of understanding and a confidentiality agreement outline privacy rules, and protections for the district’s information investment.

“Some of the things we gather is personal to the client,” she said. “We want to make sure that information is protected.”