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Crisis Data Management: A Forum Guide to Collecting and Managing Data About Displaced Students
NCES 2010-804
February 2010

Chapter 2. Before a Crisis: Planning for "Displaced" Student Data—Implementing Placeholders for Displaced Student Data Elements

A data element is the lowest level of information (i.e., a single piece of data that gets stored). In a student record system, data elements can convey information such as student names, addresses, test scores, and course enrollment. Including an item that identifies a child's status as a "displaced student" can be very helpful in a crisis situation. This element remains dormant until a crisis occurs and then, following the recommendations described below, it can be activated to identify and track displaced students during or following a disaster. The items below were developed for students entering an education agency; however, they can also be used to inform decisions and track students exiting an agency.

SEAs should be prepared to collect displaced student information from LEAs to meet state and federal reporting requirements related to a declared crisis.

Ideally, the addition of a "displaced student" identifier will be instituted at the state level because it will improve data compatibility across districts throughout the state. If a school district chooses to institute this new data element prior to receiving direction from the state, it should confirm SEA data requirements to ensure alignment with state standards.

In addition to a displaced student identifier, data systems should incorporate a related crisis event table to provide a better understanding of the student's status and needs (see below). Most data systems can accommodate these items fairly simply, yet the benefits of having the supporting elements can be invaluable, as described in greater detail in chapters 3 and 4.

Displaced student indicator: This indicator has a field length of at least two characters and corresponds to a crisis code in the Crisis Event Table (see below). It typically resides with the student record and can be used as a flag for a multitude of purposes—federal funds, exceptions to accountability rules, etc. From an operational perspective, the indicator either defaults to 00 or is set to a null value until it is triggered by a crisis affecting a student. Depending upon the enrollment circumstances of any given student, this indicator could be used by both the exiting and receiving school districts. Students affected by more than one crisis in a school year could have more than one indicator. (The following section, "Tracking Displaced Students During Hurricanes Katrina and Rita," illustrates how displaced student indicators were used in different states.)

SEAs and LEAs need to communicate about data items and file formats before setting up any new elements or systems.

Crisis event table: A crisis event table identifies and describes a crisis that may or may not cause the displacement of students. It would exist as a structured table with placeholders (e.g., 00) that are populated with values as crises occur. Such a table could include the following data:

  1. Crisis Code: A unique number or alphanumeric code used to identify a crisis. This code should be able to accommodate numerous crises within a single school year. It is associated with the displaced student identifier in order to link a crisis to a student who was displaced or otherwise affected by the event. If the same code values are to be used over multiple years, it is important to have enough crisis-specific items (e.g., school year, date/time) to keep the events unique over time.
  2. Recommendation:
    Agencies should add a displaced student indicator and associated crisis event table to its data system.

    Additional Descriptive Information: In addition to a code that identifies a crisis, an agency should consider including enough additional information to more fully explain the event. This type of documentation could prove useful for research purposes, federal accountability, and other data quality and organizational management issues. Examples include
    1. Crisis Name: The name of the crisis that caused the displacement of students (e.g., Hurricane Rita).
    2. Crisis type: The type or category of crisis. For example, FEMA declares disasters in 17 categories (see figure 3).
    3. Crisis Start Date: The date on which the crisis affected the agency, which may not be the same as the date the crisis occurred. For example, a hurricane might be expected to reach land on Wednesday but the crisis start-date would be Monday if that is when evacuation orders are implemented.
    4. Crisis Descriptor(S): Additional information about the crisis not included above.

Tracking displaced students during hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas were all significantly affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yet, because of differences in the design and operation of their student data systems, the three states had a different approach to tracking displaced students during and after the crisis.

The Louisiana Experience

  • The Louisiana SEA immediately introduced a method for tracking displaced students within its statewide student information system (SIS), and provided LEAs with collection guidelines. However, because routine collection schedules were insufficient, weekly counts of displaced student enrollments were reported by the LEAs to the SEA via a special web collection.
  • Early communications with federal agencies indicated that the displaced student population was very mobile and, therefore, that impact-aid funding should be distributed to the school(s) of post-Katrina enrollment during the 2005–06 school year. To help allocate funds appropriately, several snapshot funding ("as of") dates were established. Because the information was available at the state level, the Louisiana SEA was able to report displaced student counts to the federal government on behalf of LEAs seeking to receive Impact Aid funding.
  • Because an enrollment record in the Louisiana student information system contained the school code, entry date, entry reason, exit date, and exit reason, the SEA decided to also collect a crisis code. To operationalize this modification, SIS managers added values to existing exit- and entrance-code tables for each crisis.Thus, students who moved multiple times because of more than one crisis could be identified independently for each crisis. However, in order to establish unduplicated counts of displaced students when analyzing longitudinal data, a query of all enrollment records was necessary to determine a student's displacement status for the entire school year.

The Mississippi Experience

  • The Mississippi SEA immediately introduced a method for tracking displaced students within its statewide SIS and provided LEAs with collection guidelines. These guidelines were communicated via e-mail and by means of a newly created Mississippi Hurricane Katrina Recovery website. One example of the type of information shared this way was the immediate addition of a new field to the Mississippi SIS "Request Transfer Screen," called <Katrina Transfer>.
  • The SEA was concerned about its existing processes for transferring and releasing students, so it established three ways to enter a transfer depending on the origin and destination of transferring students:
    • In-state students transferring from one Mississippi district to another Mississippi district
      The normal process of transferring students within the state using the Mississippi SIS (MSIS) was temporarily disrupted due to the destruction of facilities and lack of power following the crisis. As soon as the system was operational, SEA staff processed the transfer and release of records for each district within the state.
    • Transfers of students moving into Mississippi from Louisiana
      Mississippi created a subsystem in its MSIS that consisted of one screen and three reports focused solely on students entering Mississippi schools from Louisiana. This subsystem was linked to a database sent by the Louisiana SEA to facilitate the enrollment of its students who had been displaced by the crisis.
    • Mississippi students transferring to another state
      Many Mississippi students were displaced by the crisis and enrolled in schools in other states. To facilitate their enrollment, Mississippi worked with the other states to institute emergency enrollment procedures, as authorized under the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act. In cases where all school records had been lost or destroyed, the SEA helped receiving states and school districts to recreate the information based on data in the MSIS database.
  • Mississippi believed it had established an effective method of tracking displaced students, regardless of whether they were originally "in state" or "out of state." However, some students did not stay in the enrolling district very long and enrollment counts had to be conducted frequently to minimize the risk of duplicate counting.

The Texas Experience

  • The Texas SEA did not collect crisis code data for hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005–06 but, rather, asked districts to maintain these data locally according to SEA specifications. Independent of these data, counts of displaced students by district were conducted on a weekly basis by regional office staff and reported to the state.
  • Although having local districts collect data satisfied many information requirements, it proved insufficient when the federal government conducted an audit of the number of students served, and student-level data were unavailable at the state level. This became an important issue because each district in Texas was audited, and federal auditors were forced to identify duplicate student counts from locally provided spreadsheets.
  • Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, data maintained at the LEA level identified students who were involved in one, both, or neither hurricane. Codes implemented were: 00 = not displaced by either hurricane Katrina or Rita, 01 = displaced by hurricane Katrina, 02 = displaced by hurricane Rita, 03 = displaced by hurricane Katrina and by hurricane Rita.

Lessons Learned: Operationalizing a Displaced Student Indicator

The design of an agency's data system has a large impact on the design of the displaced student indicator. Most systems have student data stored in different record types or levels. For example, a "complete" student data record may actually be a combination of records—enrollment, program, food service, transportation—linked by a common identifier. Such a system may place different limitations on the design of a displaced student indicator than a system with a single, stand-alone file for each student. Choices about the placement and hierarchy of a crisis code can, therefore, have a significant impact on query, storage, and print functions.

Revising the Texas solution: After its experience with hurricanes Katrina and Rita,Texas decided to add a crisis data element to its state-level student information system. The timeline for implementing this modification became more urgent in the summer of 2008 with the landfall of hurricane Dolly on the Texas coast. In an emergency meeting of the Data Governance Committee, LEAs agreed to immediately add a crisis element to the statewide student identification record for the 2008–09 school year, which proved to be a wise decision when hurricane Ike made landfall in Galveston, Texas, on September 13, 2008.

  • The Texas Education Agency now collects a crisis code at the student-record level. This approach was chosen because the student ID accompanies all student level data submissions, which allows displaced students to be identified on reports of enrollment, attendance (the state's funding measure), graduates and dropouts, and extended school year services.
  • When hurricane Ike caused the evacuation of the Texas Coast on September 13, 2008, a new code table was sent to districts. Because of this change, any state or federal audits of students displaced by the crisis could be managed at the state level, which is a more efficient model for both the auditors and the school districts.
  • When creating a code table for a crisis element, planners should avoid repeating previously used crisis codes because historical and/or longitudinal data often are included in data requests, and using the same codes repeatedly could complicate analysis.