With the help of private philanthropy, the Philadelphia school district has inked a five-year deal that will give its 6th to 12th grade students access to the Naviance platform — a web-based college-and-career readiness tool that officials say has been used to great success by wealthier districts across the nation for years.
"This is a huge thing for Philadelphia students," said Karyn Lynch, the district's chief of student services.
Lynch says using Naviance is simple: students log on to the site, enter their interests and abilities and then Naviance's algorithm helps them see what higher-education options fit.
The Naviance is essentially the 21st century guidance counselor's best friend.
"It will give parents an opportunity to sit down with their children and get a much better understanding about what colleges are open to them, best for them, available for their particular interests," said Lynch.
Supertintendent William Hite praised Naviance in an official release.
"We see an opportunity to move the needle for thousands of high school students with hopes and dreams for what comes after high school graduation," he wrote.
The Naviance tool will also allow students to take standardized test-prep (such as the PSAT) at no cost to their families.
It will also allow the district to track students' post-secondary success, which will help the district understand which students are sticking with it and graduating college.
The five year contract carries a $1.5 million cost — covered in part by a $650,000 grant from the Philadelphia School Partnership and $100,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation.
Some, though, worry about the privacy concerns inherent in the district sharing student data with a third-party organization whose usual terms of service allow it to divulge info with other clients.
"Once you go out to a third-party you have no idea what's going to happen," said Carol Heinsdorf, a retired district teacher and certified librarian. "I mean if Target can't protect its information, and Sony can't protect its information, who's to say Naviance is able to protect its information? And it's a third party marketing, data-mining company anyway."
Before the School Reform Commission voted to approve the Naviance contract on December 18th, Heinsdorf offered testimony urging caution.
Melanie Harris, the district's chief information officer, says the contract with Naviance will prohibit the company from sharing data among third parties.
"While many vendors may publish generic terms and conditions on their website...we include our own terms and conditions... which strictly prohibits the use of student data in any way that the district does not see as lawful or to the overall educational best interests of the students," Harris said.
Harris said district high schools will begin using Naviance this year and expand to middle schools in the out-years of the contract.
About 40 other schools in the area, including some district schools, already use the Naviance platform, such as: Central High, Science Leadership Academy, Chester Arthur, Father Judge, Springside Chestnut Hill, Friends Select, Franklin Towne Charter and Nueva Esperanza Charter.