Truancy Courts in Dallas County

I am doing my summer internship at Texas Appleseed in Austin, TX. Texas Appleseed is a non-profit, advocacy law center that works in a lot of areas including: foster care, juvenile justice, school-to-prison pipeline, payday loan reform, and immigration. During my time here, I will be focusing specifically on issues relating to the school-to-prison pipeline.

School-to-Prison Pipeline (in a nutshell): If you are not familiar with the S2P pipeline, basically, it’s a problematic national trend wherein kids are being channeled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system. Children that have learning disabilities, come from low-income households, and/or have troubled histories are being punished and pushed out of public schools instead of receiving the educational and counseling services that they need. This is partly due to “zero-tolerance” policies that criminalize violations of school rules. These policies have also been shown to disproportionality impact minority students.

So, when I arrived at Texas Appleseed almost three weeks ago, everyone was busy working on a complaint to the Department of Justice about truancy ticketing practices in Dallas County. The complaint focuses on four school districts: Dallas ISD, Mesquite ISD, Garland ISD, and Richardson ISD and claims that the court process used in these districts for prosecuting truancy in adult court is unconstitutional. Texas Appleseed, working alongside Disability Rights Texas and the National Center for Youth Law, argue that prosecuting youths in adult court qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. They also argue that the various attendance policies violate the civil rights of students with disabilities, health issues, and those students whose first language is not English. The complaint tells the stories of seven students who found themselves in the Dallas County courts for truancy violations and the stories are pretty moving.

Since I started, I have been working on this complaint, and it has been an extremely rewarding and eye-opening experience. I’m very excited to continue my work at Texas Appleseed, and I am excited that my first project has been so important, and I’m interested to see what becomes of it! The complaint was officially filed this morning to the Department of Justice and several news sources have also published articles about the complaint.

I’ve included links to the various news articles below:








A day in the life of…

For my last blog, I’d like to talk specifically about one individual loan recipient, Miriam Mendoza, whom we had the pleasure of interviewing for a short promotional video for People Helping People Global.

Miriam is 38 and lives in Nueva Esperanza, a community on the outskirts of Granada, Nicaragua. With her loan from PHPG, she and her husband started a small business selling firewood out of their home. They purchase large logs and then chop, bundle, and sell it as firewood to local pulperias (convenience stores).

Miriam has 9 children (ages 7 to 25) and 2 grandchildren. Her oldest daughter lives in a small house on the same property with the 2 grandchildren, and Miriam lives with her husband and four youngest children in a slightly larger house. Miriam makes a modest income with her business, but her earnings have allowed her to make repairs on her house and to replace the plastic walls of her daughter’s house with wood paneling. She told us that as a young woman, she had hoped for an office job, but never received the education that would qualify her for one. During the interview, when asked what her dream job is, she replied, “To work more.” She is truly grateful to be working to support her family.

During and after the interview, we played tag and joked around with Miriam’s adorable family. We took countless pictures of and with her family. Her elder daughters loved using our camera, and all of them were excited to see the pictures afterwards.

The individual interviews we did for the mini-documentaries were among the best days of my time in Nicaragua. It was wonderful spending time with individual loan recipients and their families and getting to know them on a personal level. We spent one morning with Oswaldo Calderón, who is on his second loan with PHPG. Oswaldo is one of the most friendly and energetic people I’ve met. His smile is contagious! Here is the video from his interview:

My last project for the internship, which I will work on in Austin, is to edit the footage from Miriam’s interview to create a short video that captures the essence of her life, family, and job.

I’d like to give a special thanks the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law and the Crook Fellowship for making my internship in Nicaragua possible!

Inclusive Growth and the Environment

Last time I touched base, I was just getting settled at the IPC. Now that I am little bit beyond the half way point, I was hoping to cover my summer work in better detail.

Since the start of my internship in June, I have had the opportunity to work with other interns from around the world. I would like to introduce a good friend and colleague and briefly touch on her work at the center as a way to jump into a discussion on inclusive growth.

Meet Daniela, a Masters student of Economics at the Free University of Berlin, who focuses her research on Macroeconomics and Development. At the center, she works in the Inclusive Growth Unit developing a growth index to evaluate global economic performance in terms of inclusiveness. As I briefly mentioned in the last blog post, inclusive growth is regarded as a development path that leads to more equitable outcomes resulting from development and benefit sharing in the growth process itself. Daniela has been tasked with designing an appropriate employment indicator to account for ways in which job creation can reduce poverty and inequality. Additionally, she focuses on wage-led growth as one possible strategy to achieve inclusive growth.

Much like Daniela, I have spent the majority of my summer working on an inclusive growth project. The two projects can be distinguished, however, on methodological and substantive grounds. Taking a slightly different methodological tact, the inclusive growth project that I am working on uses a statistical technique known as Grade of Membership (GOM) analysis. This statistical model effectively has been used in areas such as public health, psychology, artificial intelligence, and public transportation planning in Tokyo’s metro system. Unlike other classification models, a GOM analysis allows units to be characterized by their grade of association (i.e. membership) to some defined physical object like a train station or categorical type/profile, such as environmental sustainability or inclusive growth. It’s applications in disparate areas such as inclusive growth and artificial intelligence may seem odd at first. But as the project director explained to me, when a robot reaches for an object, it gauges the distance as it approaches the object through grades of association. Simply put, the robot knows it is getting closer, because the statistical model allows for a more nuanced measurement of distance (the same logic holds for the metro in Tokyo as it approaches a station).
Fortunately, my summer research has nothing to do with robots. My part of this project attempts to understand how macroeconomic performance and institutional capacity relate to dimensions of environmental performance and sustainability for countries around the world. The development of two GOM models help accomplish this analysis. The first model considers inclusive growth with numerous indicators across three areas: macroeconomics, social protection and institutional capacity. The second model uses a Grade of Membership analysis based off environmental performance and sustainability indicators found in the 2011 Human Development Index report published by the UNDP and the Yale’s Environmental Performance Index.
After we obtain a country’s grade of membership, it is then matched, according to its score, to three environmental sustainability profiles. With this set up, one potentially can observe countries with high grades of membership across numerous environmental profiles. Rather than belonging to one environmental profile (known as a pure type), the GOM illustrates a more nuanced, and realistic, representation of environmental performance and sustainability for each country in the model. From this information, one can work backwards in the database to highlight both what plagues a country’s environmental performance as well as areas that perform adequately.
So far working with environmental sustainability/performance and inclusive growth has been a pleasant change of pace. We are just beginning to analyze the results from the two models and will soon turn to the write up. I hope to preview some of the results in the next blog and sprinkle in some stories about traveling in the region.
Ate mais!

Making the Case for a Family Doctor

Kriti (name changed), my co-resident in an apartment I am renting out during the internship is a typical young professional working in the booming software industry in India. The neighborhood we live in is serviced by the best amenities possible including services for health care that range from clinics, secondary hospitals and super-specialty centers. Two weeks into my stay here, Kriti developed a recurring back pain that almost affected her mobility. She knew she had to see a doctor but needed answers to many questions before she chose one – which doctor/ specialist will be right for the problem, how expensive will the services be, will the doctor have time to hear about her entire medical history before he/ she prescribes her a treatment.

Incidentally my study during the internship was looking at this very issue – the rising cost of healthcare resulting from a lack of preventive care as well as lack of information. For example, a lot of Kriti’s problems could be sorted if she could see a family physician. The family physician would perform a preliminary investigation helping Kriti diagnose the problem and also prescribe the preliminary treatment. While the specialists look only at the specific cause of concern, the physicians would view Kriti’s health concerns from a holistic point of view and provide a more comprehensive line of treatment. If need be, he would direct Kriti to the right specialist. On top of all this, seeing a family physician would be much less expensive than seeing a specialist in the first place.

The problem is that the presence of family physicians has significantly dropped in India.  Fewer medical graduates want to follow the stream of family medicine as against super-specializations like cardiology, neurology and urology etc.  More and more people are changing cities frequently for their jobs making it difficult to have a dedicated family doctor. Further, with a rise in income levels and easier access to specialists, there has been a surge in demand for their services. With a diminishing supply of providers, and an inconsistent demand for general practice, the breed of family physicians is nearing extinction in the country.

At the same time, lifestyle related and non-communicable diseases are rising in India. According to a 2010 World Bank report, the percent of out of pocket expenses incurred by households in the country on non-communicable diseases rose from 31.6 percent in 1995-96 to 47.3 percent in 2004. Family physicians who take on the role of health managers and promote preventive health can significantly improve health stats of the population.

A handful of providers are doing just that. Nationwide Healthcare in Bangalore, Ross clinics in Gurgaon and Healthspring in Mumbai are amongst some of the providers trying to revive the family physician model. They are all multi-clinic chains servicing communities in urban and peri-urban areas and working to reestablish the trust for a family physician as the first point of contact for any health concern. More importantly, they are reinforcing the importance of preventive rather than curative care. They are all in the first few years of their operation, and while it may be hard to assess their success at this stage, they offer an interesting study as innovative health care models that are striving to improve the population’s health indices.

ACCESS Health International (AHI), the agency I am interning at is taking an active interest in these models and others similar to them. While here, I am conducting a study of these models to understand their delivery model, document their success stories, and identify challenges they face including support for replicating and scaling up. Going forward, AHI will be working to build a community of practice that will facilitate a collaborative environment amidst the different players interested in the field.



Summer Internship at the Texas Capitol

A couple of weeks ago, I began my internship at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas.  If you have not been to the Capitol before, it is beautiful and impressive; I highly suggest visiting this historic building.  Staring up into the large Texas star high at the top of the rotunda, the historic legacy of Texas is apparent with the portraits of past Governors surrounding those within the rotunda walls. A Californian born and bred, I was a little intimidated by the guards walking around with their large Texas cowboy hats and aviator glasses, but their smiles are disarming every day I come through the doors, and they are extremely friendly and engaging whenever I stop to talk to them. The office I work in is equally friendly: my co-workers are very warm and approachable; I am immediately put at ease in this very open and transparent space.

For the last couple of weeks, I have had the intellectual luxury of having the time to do almost nothing but read and write about policy. This luxury of time to review documents is the benefit of working during a time when the Texas Legislature is not in session. During the session, I hear from many people that exercise and sufficient amounts of sleep would be considered a luxury.

Compared to internships in the past, the legislative director has only held me responsible for learning during my first month here. This was apparent from the beginning as my acceptance letter read simply, “Start reading everything you can get your hands on about Medicaid, the 1115 waiver, Senate Bill 7 from last session, and health and human services in general. When can you start?”

This week, things will ramp up a bit at the office as we are anticipating the arrival of two large binders of materials for the two hearings next week, for School Finance and Health and Human Services. Once we receive those binders, we will have about 2-3 days to review the hundreds of pages there within, and then formulate relevant questions to ask during the hearing. I am hoping that the month I have spent learning about these subjects will prepare me with the ability to contribute to next week’s hearing.

Update from Nicaragua

An update on the past several weeks…

June was full of interviews. There are a total of 75 loan applicants and over the course of June, we interviewed each and every one of them. The interviews themselves were fairly straight forward, although, at times, I had to repeat my questions and the loan applicants answers to make sure I was understanding correctly and getting all the information we need.

An interview in Pantanal, Granada, Nicaragua

The most difficult part of the interview process was finding where each applicant lives. There are no formal addresses in Nicaragua, especially not in the communities on the outskirts of Granada where we work. Addresses are described by distances and directions from major landmarks, such as a school, a church, the health center, or the old water tank. The first few days of interviews we spent a lot of time trying to figure out where people lived. Even with Gilberts and Marcela, the Nicaraguan employees, we had a hard time finding some of the applicants. There was one group that was particularly hard to find. The directions to their house (translated to English) said ‘From the health center, 3 blocks to the west and one to the east.’ We asked a woman who lives in that vicinity and she did not know any of the women we were looking for. We found the group of women eventually, but it took a few days and a lot of asking around.

After finishing the initial interviews with new loan applicants, we switched focus to interview each current loan recipients in Granada; there are over 150 current recipients! These mid-loan interviews focus on collecting information about our clients’ quality of life, how the loan has helped them, suggestions for how we can improve the organization, and what other programs they would like to see in their community. Suggestions for new programs have included computer classes, sports programs for children, educational programs for children, vocational training, and groups for new mothers. My original idea was to try to incorporate health education into the micro-finance model, but we decided it would be better to gauge our clients’ opinions on what they would like to see in their community in order to create a more sustainable program. Not all of the suggested programs fall within the mission of People Helping People Global, but for those that don’t PHPG could help organize or link community members to other organizations that offer other programs in the area. We had hoped to be at a later stage in analysing the responses to the suggestions for new programs by the end of the internship, but we will have to leave that for the founders or future interns. Our progress on the interview front was slowed by two unfortunate events: the death of Gilberts’s father and the death of Marcela’s uncle, both about a month and a half ago. Since then, Gilberts has taken over his fathers’ business, which has been a tough transition for him and left him with little time to work with PHPG.

The interviews themselves are wonderful. We’ve really enjoyed getting to know our clients better and making stronger connections with the community. In addition to the interviews, a few of us have spent a few mornings and afternoons shadowing and filming a few clients in order to create mini-documentaries that show a glimpse of their everyday lives: their jobs and families, what they did with the loans, and how the loans have helped them. These have been the most rewarding experiences for me and my fellow interns. I’m putting together a brief profile of one of the loan recipients we shadowed in the past few weeks for my next blog post. Stay tuned!