Nathan Luecking is a social worker at Anacostia High School.

There are many students who crowd my memories of the years I’ve served as a social worker in D.C.’s public schools; none more so than one former student of mine. He came to Anacostia High School after a traumatic situation at his previous school that led to behavioral issues. I was able to strike a rapport with him and began the process of enrolling him in services. However, his family was forced to move out of the Anacostia boundary and he was unenrolled before I was able to connect with his mother for consent. I could not even access basic information to contact them and make sure he had what he needed to stay on track at a new school. It wasn’t too long before I learned of the student’s death from gun violence.

He was failed by the system. The repeated breakdowns across the District’s data and information systems made it impossible to find him and provide information to colleagues at his new school who could help. If we’d had a more robust, integrated system, the outcome would likely have been much different. My former student got lost in a system that fails to properly track individual cases and ensure that students continue to get the right care and support, which is devastating in a city where some students might transfer schools as many as six times.

A recent report from Office of the D.C. Auditor details the failures of the District to properly gather, analyze and share the information to ensure continuity of learning and care for students within the District’s public schools. This is problematic for students who have serious challenges, as my former student did, but also for any student who is looking for continuity of learning and care, and the accommodations they need to succeed from one school to the next.

Imagine if the lack of a “paper trail” or “permanent record” was tolerated in other sectors. Take health care, for example. Imagine arriving to a new medical practice and learning your doctor wasn’t able to review your health history before an exam. Or perhaps they weren’t able to share diagnostic information with the emergency room simply because data-sharing was not seen by those at the top as a priority. The result would be a complete breakdown in continuity of care that could negatively impact one’s long-term health or life span. We would consider this a complete failure, and it could be correctly understood as malpractice. The same should be true for schools and districts. Districts who have data but do not use it — or fail to collect and share critical information — keep teachers, mental health providers and support staff from providing the best-quality services and instruction the minute a student steps into a new school.

Yet, this is what’s happening throughout the District’s public schools. Without a “statewide” longitudinal data system that allows educators and parents to access an array of essential information on students’ academic progress and overall development and well-being, many students do not get the support they need to persist in school and reach their potential. It’s not because the District can’t do it, but because the District won’t do it.

The federal government gave the District millions of dollars to build and maintain such as system but, according to the auditor, the District still “[does] not have this basic tool to inform our decisions.” Furthermore, the auditor’s report details the risk to students and families as well as the risk of being out of compliance with federal grant requirements, but District leaders are refusing to acknowledge the system’s inadequacies and failures. This malpractice in education, which has jeopardized the lives of students, seems of no importance to them.

When confronted with the criticism from the auditor, the District’s leadership goes on defense and has sought to justify the mediocrity as sufficient. As we enter the recovery phase of the coronavirus pandemic, and move to fully reopen schools and reengage students, it is even more critical that we ensure a continuity of care and learning for our students by leveraging all available resources and information so we can get and keep everyone on track academically and developmentally.

If my student had lived and learned in a place with a strong culture of data collection and access, where teachers and school counselors could analyze a student’s trajectory and history and spot signs of stress or need for additional support, he might very well have been given the opportunity to change his trajectory before it was too late.

Failing students such as this one is not just a singular tragedy, but one that creates and reflects the deep tensions and inequities in our society that will continue to hamper progress as we strive to fix the deep inequities in our school system. Although there are multiple factors that play into the problems that plagued my student, and there were broader failures across systems of support, there was so much more we could have done but didn’t because our leadership dropped the ball on a longitudinal data system that has become standard in other school districts across the country.

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