Self-Taught Techie Designs App to Get At-Risk Kids into Preschool

Steve Sturm shows off the computer program he developed to help get at-risk children enrolled in preschool. Photo: Sara Tiano

Steve Sturm believes every child should have the same opportunities that his 3-year-old daughter Reagan enjoys. Things like new boots, trips to the trampoline park — and preschool.

But for children known to the foster care system, too many miss out on the earliest years of their education.

“There wasn’t any real focus on early ed. It was kind of an afterthought,” said Sturm, who works with the education unit at L.A.’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the biggest child welfare agency in the country. A 2009 study found that just 27 percent of preschool-aged DCFS-involved children were enrolled in any sort of formal early education program, despite having categorical eligibility.

When Sturm came on board, he made it his mission to improve preschool enrollment. He built a web application that allows child welfare social workers to refer kids to programs in just a few clicks of their mouse. Though an unlikely developer from farm boy beginnings, Sturm has managed to create a web program that has changed the way the country’s largest child welfare department thinks about early childhood education.

The positives of preschool are relatively well established, and may have even starker benefits for children known to the child welfare system. A 2017 study of systems-involved children found that participating in Head Start — a $9 billion federal early education program developed in the 1960s to provide early childhood education to low-income families — reduced their chance of entering foster care by 93 percent.

How It Works

Sturm’s program, called the Head Start Electronic Referral System, is simple.

When a caseworker logs in, a list appears showing all the preschool-aged kids on their caseload. All 3- and 4-year-olds involved with DCFS are eligible; some areas of the county also have programs for tykes 2 and younger. Despite the name, the system generates referrals for a number of local preschool providers, not just Head Start programs.

The caseworker selects the child they want to refer, and they’re asked if the caregiver, parent or foster parent gave verbal consent for the enrollment.

If they select yes, the caregiver’s information will pop up, their name pre-populated in the form. The social worker just has to enter a phone number and hit submit — the system automatically routes the referral to the local partner preschool for that child. In less than a minute, they’re done, and, in theory, the preschool agency takes it from there, reaching out to the parent or foster parent to complete the enrollment process.

“In all the years I’ve studied preschool access for abused and neglected children, I’ve never seen an approach as simple and effective,” said Sacha Klein, a researcher and professor at Michigan State University. “Rather than adding yet another arduous task to overworked child welfare caseworkers’ to-do lists, this system makes referring maltreated children to preschool fast and simple. It’s also inexpensive and easy to replicate. I don’t know why more child welfare agencies haven’t adopted this approach.”

Klein is responsible for early indications that the positive connection between child welfare investigations and Head Start is worth examining. Last year, she co-authored a study of 1,995 youth whose parents had previous contact with the child welfare system; those participating in Head Start were 93 percent less likely to be placed in foster care than kids who received no early childhood education program.

Klein is the first to concede that the sample within their sample was small: 32 of the children were enrolled in Head Start, and only one entered foster care.

“It is a limitation of the study,” Klein told The Chronicle of Social Change in 2017. “I’d feel more confident if that were a bigger number. But it is statistically significant, it’s not a spurious finding.”

Transformative Technology

Social workers said that Sturm’s system has revolutionized the referral process for them. The quick and seamless nature of the referral program allowed caseworkers to add this service to their interactions with families without requiring extra time or effort.

Gail Lawsom, a seasoned children’s social worker with the department, said she especially appreciates the feedback the system provides. She can see when families she’s referred have gotten enrolled into a program.

“It’s just working so much better than before when referrals just went off into Neverland,” Lawson said.

Sturm said from the first year they rolled it out in 2012, there was a clear impact. Around 1,200 children were referred to Head Start programs.

“It was like turning a switch on,” he said. Before that first year, referrals were so sporadic and decentralized that the department didn’t even track them.

Since then, they’ve added new layers of information, modules and feedback loops to make the program even more streamlined for both the social workers and the agencies fielding the referrals.

Last year, for example, they added a “collaborative communication loop” that allowed partnering education agencies to send feedback on referrals they hadn’t been able to successfully enroll — whether it be because of a wrong number or because the kid had moved placements since the time of referral. With this communication, kids who otherwise would have been “lost” from the system are flagged for re-referral.

While DCFS-involved kids are automatically eligible for Head Start, which is free to families, there aren’t slots reserved for them. Sturm’s team does enrollment pushes in the spring and summer, when 5-year-olds are graduating to kindergarten and programs are looking to refill their rosters.

Incidental Inventor

Surprisingly, Sturm, who grew up on a farm in Fresno, California, isn’t trained in computer programming. He credits his technological savvy to being a college student in the early 90s, when home computers were on the rise. To keep up with the changing times, he had to teach himself — and apparently, he was a natural.

“I’m not saying I’m Rain Man or anything, but I pick it up pretty quickly,” he said.

He never intended to go into child welfare work, either. He was recruited by DCFS while he was writing government bids for a friend’s security company — one of the contracts he’d negotiated had been with the department.

He bounced around different roles in DCFS for several years. At one point, while working in the government relations department, he learned that L.A.’s foster kids were missing out on millions of untapped early education dollars and prompted him to find out why.

Sturm decided to make it his mission to boost preschool enrollment. When a position opened up in the education unit, he interviewed on that platform and got the job.

Sturm is modest about taking credit for driving a significant change in the department’s paradigm about early childhood education — a shift that will mean more services for thousands of kids.

“It was the fact that I was allowed to be able to do that,” he said. “My boss was really supportive of it. She liked the idea.”

He also gives huge credit to the in-house IT team at the department. While Sturm conceived and designed the program, the IT team wrote the code to bring the ideas to actuality.

Sturm said his strength was simply knowing how he wanted the data to interact, and being able to communicate that to IT.

“I speak geek occasionally,” he said with a chuckle.

Goals for Growth

Given the system’s malleability, Sturm said they’ve only scratched the surface of what they can do with it.

The next development will be making the program mobile by integrating it with a smartphone app DCFS rolled out in mid-May, allowing social workers to log on from the field and refer kids in real time.

One especially exciting feature of the mobile app is the inclusion of three short videos from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child designed to educate parents and caregivers about the benefits of early childhood education.

That piece, Sturm said, is one of the big challenges with the referral system — convincing parents that sending their kids to Head Start even matters.

The videos focus on topics around brain development and toxic stress. And though the subjects sound daunting, the quick, minute-and-a-half videos are designed to be accessible to anyone.

“They’re really quick, easy lessons that parents can put to use that day,” Sturm said, adding that showing parents videos via the mobile app creates an opportunity for caseworkers to further discuss real life application of the concepts.

Sturm said they’re also working toward integrating the referral system directly with Child Plus, the client management system used by the majority of Head Start programs. This would mean referrals would feed directly into the agencies’ existing environment, rather than requiring them to log into a completely separate system.

Klein, the Michigan State researcher, said Sturm’s system makes Los Angeles an ideal location to further measure the impact of Head Start on families involved with child protective services.

Sturm, who hopes to share his system with other counties and states, thinks streamlining the process for Head Start is a key hurdle to cross.

“If we make the Child Plus connection really work in the way we want it to, I think this has got nationwide implications,” Sturm said.

Correction:  This article originally misstated Sturm’s birthplace and has been edited to correct the error.

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 34 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change

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