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Students at Nettelhorst Elementary School, on lunch, dig into a salad bar in the school's lunchroom. - 

Schools around the country are using student data in all sorts of ways: to personalize education, to figure out which teaching techniques are working, and to make school services more efficient.

One place to actually see student data in action is the modern school cafeteria. 

At Carr Intermediate School in Santa Ana California, sixth graders start school a day early for orientation. Among the lessons they’ll learn: how to use their ID cards to get through the lunch line quickly.

“Part of what we are trying to teach them is technology,” says school principal Ed Bustamante.

Students punch their ID numbers into a keypad. That brings up their names, photos, even food allergies. The cashier greets students by name and sends them on their way.

It all happens very fast. Hundreds of kids grab burritos, mini-burgers, fruit and milk in no time.

Mark Chavez is Director of Nutrition Services at Santa Ana Unified School District. He says the cafeteria software, called Meals Plus, records each child who gets a meal. 

That kind of information can come in very handy if, for instance, a child’s academic performance starts to slipSchool administrators can check to see if that child is eating.

The central office can also see exactly how many meals were served in the district, so schools can be sure they are being reimbursed properly by the state.

And, says Chavez, data can help when an upset parent calls because her child came home with a stomach ache: “We’ll say, ‘Mom, sorry to tell you, but they didn’t have lunch today because we didn’t see them at any points of sale.”       

All students at Santa Ana get free meals, so the district only keeps track of whether a child got lunch or not.

But in some schools, cafeteria systems will log exactly what a kid puts on her tray—pizza or a chicken sandwich, juice or milk. 

“The transaction can be rather detailed,” says Joel Reidenberg, a professor at Fordham University and a student data privacy expert. “Over time, that builds a profile of a child’s eating habits.”

Reidenberg says in some schools, cafeteria payment services are run by private contractors.

“Schools have lost control about the information about their children when they start using these outsourced services,” he says. 

Then, says Reidenberg it’s not at all clear how that data will be used.

Follow Adriene Hill at @adrienehill