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Western Pennsylvania leaders strive to reduce chronic absenteeism in schools

Natasha Lindstrom
| Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, 2:54 p.m.
Schools across the region are trying to reduce student absenteeism.
Evan R. Sanders | Trib Total Media
Schools across the region are trying to reduce student absenteeism.

Schools across the country are grappling with a persistent dilemma: how to reduce the number of days that children miss class.

Decades of research point to connections between a student's poor school attendance record and higher likelihoods of dropping out of school, entering the juvenile justice system and struggling with health, social and money issues later in life.

United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania announced Monday an expanded partnership with the University of Pittsburgh aimed at helping schools across the region discover and implement the most effective methods for addressing chronic absenteeism.

Building on pockets of success in recent years, United Way estimates it will reach 11,000 more students in Greater Pittsburgh — mostly within the Woodland Hills School District's boundaries — during the coming academic year through its Be There school attendance initiative. The effort has reached 33,000 students since its start in 2013, United Way officials said.

Pitt provided $30,000 toward Be There's expanded reach this year and pledged to raise an additional $30,000 in matching funds.

What makes United Way's attendance-bolstering model stand out is its focus on positive reinforcement as opposed to punitive measures, said Robert Nelkin, president and CEO of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The idea is that school officials should do more to prevent a student from becoming chronically absent — defined as missing 10 percent of the school year, or about two days per month — before the problem results in taking the parents to court.

Early successes in the region have shown that better understanding the circumstances causing a child's absence and building relationships with parents to improve the situation are more effective than legal consequences, according to Shauna McMillan, United Way's manager of programs for children and youth.

McMillan said the concept gets at core human need: “We all want to be in places where we feel cared about or we feel like we can do our best.”

Nelkin noted that he's “been in human services for almost 50 years, and I've watched all the punitive efforts: ‘Let's take them to court. Let's use the hammer, the justice system to get the families to comply.'

“And in some cases, that's necessary,” Nelkin continued. “But most of the time, what really works is helping the family understand what they're accountable for and then encouraging them, supporting them and rewarding them for improvements in the behavior.

The Be There expansion announced Monday has three main components:

Text support —Through United Way's 2-1-1 human services support regional hotline, parents will get text notifications alerting them to pertinent school-related deadlines and announcements. It also sends referrals for help in meeting basic needs, such as assistance paying a utility bill or getting into stable housing. Organizers hope to connect to 2,200 families in need across Allegheny County in the pilot's first year.

• The Buddy Project — Five schools in the Woodland Hills area and others in Pittsburgh will receive funding and expanded support to host The Buddy Project, a program that pairs students with school staff members to foster relationships and accountability among students.

• Pitt volunteers — Pitt has committed to galvanizing at least 100 of its staff, faculty and students to volunteer as mentors and to help carry out The Buddy Project and Be There program in local schools.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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