New Computer Program Created by Fordham Students Helps P.S. 85 Guide Families to Resources

A new computer program will help the staff at P.S. 85 – and possibly other schools in the future – steer impoverished families to the city resources they need.

A group of Fordham University students, along with their computer and information science professor Frank Hsu, have worked since fall of 2015 to develop the program which mental health professionals working at the school can now use.

The students were able to use IBM Watson technology to create a app which provides answers to specific questions the counselors and mental health staff at P.S. 85 commonly receive.

For example, staff can type, “Where can I get food stamps?” and the program will relay the nearest location to get SNAP benefits.

Cesarina Javier, the mental health coordinator at P.S. 85, said many times parents come into the school and ask her for help with various problems that the staff is not readily equipped to answer or is not related to their job description.

She said there is a trust certain family members have with her that allows them to ask for help with personal matters. Javier said being bilingual also helps build trust.

“So there’s that connection they have with me where they’ll pull me to the side and say, ‘I really need help with something,’” she explained.

Javier said at times parents have come to her because they need to get away form a ‘significant other’ due to domestic violence or because the shelter they’re staying at is in another borough.

She added 90 percent of the students at the school are receiving free lunch which means their family is living in poverty. Also, many of the families don’t have constant access to the Internet.

“The point of this app is to help me link families to resources that are within their reach,” she said.

The program was a collaboration between Hsu’s students – which include, Anna Poulakas, Navdeep Bajwa, Xiaojie Lan, ALon Yoeli, Jiacheng Chen, Yuxiao Luo, Ruinan Chen, Jaffar Zaidi, Emi Harry, Sebastian Deossa and Andrew Milligan – and Anita Vazquez Batisti’s staff – such as Javier – in the Center for Educational Partnerships.

Since P.S. 85 is a community school, it receives many resources from Fordham University.

The students met many times with Javier and Dawn Johnson Adams, director of P.S. 85, to make sure IBM Watson could answer the many questions staff members like Javier receive on a daily basis.

“I would say they definitely guided us into what resources to look at and what kind of questions to ask because we definitely had no idea,” said Anna Poulakas, a junior political science student at FU.

“I think (the students) were the biggest resources we had,” said Poulakas with a smile.

The students said they plan to continue improving on the program and also hope to one day develop an app that can be used on handheld devices.

Reach Reporter Robert Christie at (718) 260-4591. E-mail him at rchristie@cnglocal.com.

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