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New student card: Big benefit or Big Brother?

By David Abel
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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The hope is that the card will open an array of city services to students and reduce their absenteeism; the fear is that the new data it provides to city officials could be abused for less educational purposes.

City officials plan to launch a pilot program today to make it easier for some public school students to use city services by providing them with one card they can use to ride the MBTA, withdraw books from city libraries, play sports, attend after-school programs at community centers, and access meal programs at their schools.

The so-called BostONEcard will also be used to take attendance and may eventually serve as a debit card, among other potential uses.

“We’re working hard to focus the assets of the whole city on the development of the whole child,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement. “This card will help make the assets of our city more accessible and remind each student every day that there are community centers and libraries for them to explore.’’

This program is starting at the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Chinatown, where all 530 students in grades 6 through 12 are being provided a card, which has multiple barcodes, a radio frequency device to use on the T, and their photos. The city will evaluate the program at the end of the academic year and consider expanding it next year to all Boston Public School students in middle school and high school.

Chris Osgood, cochair of the mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics, said he hoped the information generated by the cards would allow city officials to develop a single picture of whether students use libraries, community centers, and other programs.

“We want to be able to use this data to look at the impact of, say, a homework or literacy program and how it affects student achievement,’’ Osgood said. “It will also help schools make sure attendance is up.’’

He and others noted the potential privacy issues of compiling so much data that tracks the movements and choices of individual students.

“This may not be Big Brother, but it certainly feels like Little Brother,’’ said Carol Rose, American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts executive director.

She questioned whether the information could be subpoenaed by law enforcement agencies or whether it could be surreptitiously slipped to marketing companies.

“There would need to be stringent privacy protections so that the librarian doesn’t have access to where a student took the T; the school police officer doesn’t know what books the student is reading; and a school principal doesn’t know how much lunch money students in have in their accounts,’’ she said. “The question is who has access to this database, which when combined reveals a treasure trove of personal information about our children, including what they read, what they eat, where they go, and how much money they have. That information is highly confidential.’’

City officials said they are developing the system and that it would take time before all the information is linked to any central database. They said the cards are being donated by the MBTA and that the costs for now are minuscule. Completing the system and expanding it to the district’s 57,000 students would increase costs substantially.

In the past two years, the city has introduced a system of barcode readers that can track students when they swipe their cards at the Boston Public Library’s 28 branches and the Boston Centers for Youth & Families’ 38 community centers. They are installing card readers at schools citywide.

Kim Rice, chief operating officer of the Boston Public School System, said the hope is that the card reduces the stigma of students taking part in the free or reduced-price meal program, because eventually all students could be using their cards to pay for meals or take part in breakfast and lunch programs.

She said the plastic may become obsolete in coming years, as students might be able to access the same services through applications on their cellphones that would allow them to check in to schools and programs. She acknowledged the potential for abuse of such a system.

“Whenever we talk about student data, we have to be very careful and err on the side of extreme caution,’’ Rice said. “In this particular instance, we’re leveraging a piece of plastic, and we’re making access to families a lot easier.’’

At the Josiah Quincy Upper School, which volunteered to launch the program after 30 students last year had attendance rates below 80 percent, headmaster Bak Fun Wong called the cards “very smart.’’ He hopes they promote attendance and encourage students to use the library and after-school programs.

“It’s like giving the kids their own credit cards,’’ he said. “I hope it empowers them.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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