For more than a decade, Mississippi has administered the SmartTrack survey—a robust online tool designed to collect comprehensive information on student substance misuse, mental health, violence, and other behavioral health indicators—to middle and high school students across the state. SmartTrack is an unparalleled resource for Mississippi, generating near real-time data to inform prevention programming and resource allocation. It also serves as a venue for strengthening partnerships among the multiple state prevention agencies that share responsibility for the survey.
The SmartTrack Survey
SmartTrack was first conceived in 2001, the brainchild of a multidisciplinary prevention team led by DREAM, Inc., a national leader in substance misuse prevention and health promotion with a long history of working in partnership with schools, communities, and state prevention agencies to prevent youth alcohol and drug use.
“We had been meeting for several months with school administrators from across the state, trying to identify the most pressing prevention issues schools were facing,” explains Doug Caver, chief operating officer of the Data Integration Group and part of the original SmartTrack development team. “We wanted to find out what was on the horizon as far as kids’ prevention issues—so we could be proactive and prepared to help schools. The message we heard loud and clear was that schools needed a way to analyze and share students’ behavioral health data.
“Schools across the state were using surveys to collect valuable student data, but these data weren’t being put to use,” he continues. “Timing of data delivery was one problem: schools would implement a survey but sometimes had to wait as long as a year to see the results. Also, the data were very difficult and time-consuming to analyze and share—virtually inaccessible to anyone working at the school, district, or state levels. So we developed SmartTrack as a way to make survey data accessible and user-friendly.”
DREAM knew it needed support from state prevention agencies in order to get SmartTrack into schools and sustain the tool over time. To this end, DREAM approached the Mississippi Departments of Education and Mental Health for their help piloting the new instrument. “Getting the buy-in of the Department of Education was key to establishing a strong SmartTrack presence in the schools. They really helped us get established in the field,” says Caver. “But SmartTrack helped the Department of Education as well. At the time, [the Department of Education] received federal Title IV money from Safe and Drug-free Schools. They needed to collect data to meet their funding requirements, and SmartTrack could help them do so. Likewise, the Department of Mental Health really championed the SmartTrack cause because they understood its utility at both the local and state levels.”
In the decade since SmartTrack’s successful pilot in 2003, the partnership’s collective efforts have resulted in widespread implementation of the survey. In 2011, 136,000 students from 436 public schools and learning centers across the state completed SmartTrack, with approximately 70% of 6 through 12th graders from about 90% of school districts participating. The survey is free to schools and costs Mississippi less than a dollar per student surveyed.
SmartTrack remains a collaborative project, jointly managed and funded by the state Departments of Education, Mental Health, Health, and Public Safety, and supported by Mississippi’s State Epidemiological Outcomes Workgroup (SEOW), which analyzes the data and manages survey revision.
“The SEOW has for years shared information and collaborated on interagency prevention work,” explains Jerri Avery, PhD, Bureau Director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Services. “We’re a strong group with a successful history of working together. SmartTrack was another project where we could influence prevention work in Mississippi.”
The SEOW relies on SmartTrack data to paint a clear picture of the problems facing young people across the state, and to identify sub-populations most at risk. It also uses SmartTrack as a platform for exchanging information and strengthening working relationships.
“Meetings about SmartTrack have become educational and collaborative opportunities for prevention work in the state,” says Deirdre Danahar, training and technical assistance specialist for CAPT’s Southeast Regional Resource Team. “Recently, the Department of Public Safety came to a SEOW meeting to talk about their work and how it’s related to prevention. Because of the good work they have done with SmartTrack, the SEOW has a dedicated group of folks willing to roll up their sleeves and do this work.”
SmartTrack’s Effect on the Prevention Landscape
SmartTrack has been a boon for Mississippi schools, and for local and state prevention agencies, positively impacting prevention across the state.
- State agencies use the data to make funding decisions: The State Department of Mental Health recently distributed SAMHSA funds aimed at reducing youth alcohol and prescription drug abuse to counties with the highest rates of youth substance misuse, as reported in SmartTrack.
- Community agencies use the data to tailor prevention efforts: The state gives local agencies block grants to hire school prevention specialists, who address the specific substance misuse and social issues identified by school.
- Schools get near-instant access to data to inform school programming, such as health class curricula, and can disaggregate data to study trends to focus prevention programming on specific populations and maximize the effectiveness of programs and services. SmartTrack also allows schools to compare their students to peers across the state, and keys results to state-recommended, evidence-based programs to address issues specific to each school.
Mississippi’s dedication to ensuring that SmartTrack continues into the future is a testament to its worth. “Whenever it looks like funding for SmartTrack is about to run out, the state agencies rally around to save it. This shared responsibility and widespread support couldn’t happen without the strong foundation of collaboration,” notes Danahar.
Avery points out that the influence each agency brings to the table is just as important as funding in ensuring that SmartTrack continues, citing the following example: “Without the Department of Education, we can’t get school participation in the survey. The Department of Education brings way more than money to the table; they get buy-in from schools.”
The partners remain devoted to their collaborative efforts in sustaining the work. “We keep SmartTrack going, we understand its value, and we appreciate the rich data the survey generates,” says Avery. “We are willing to take on the financial responsibility for making sure it continues. We will also continue to devote staff time and resources to making sure the questions remain appropriate and timely.”
“SmartTrack collects rich data from over a hundred thousand kids,” Danahar adds. “It’s useful for many parties. So if you come to the table, you’re likely to walk away with information that is useful for you. The agencies have created relationships, and relationships are important everywhere in Mississippi.”
Over the past few years, over a dozen other states, counties, and school districts have adopted SmartTrack, with Mississippi as a model of how collaboration and shared responsibility can yield results that support prevention programming across states.