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United Way plan pumps $8M into programs to help students

Natasha Lindstrom
| Friday, Dec. 4, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

The path to becoming a high school dropout starts early — particularly for poor students who have trouble reading.

As many as six in 10 students who fail to graduate on time decide to quit school by eighth grade, according to federal and local public education data compiled by United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. Low-income third-graders who aren't proficient in reading are three times more likely to join them.

The United Way of Allegheny County revealed a five-year strategic plan Thursday that will pump $8 million into programs aimed at preventing young children from falling behind academically and socially. The plan prioritizes efforts to improve school registration and attendance rates, expand after-school and summer options and pair children with adult mentors.

“Students in grades K-8 are in their formative years,” said Julie DeSeyn, United Way's vice president of community impact. “This is a key time frame to focus on both academic achievements and character development.”

The charitable umbrella group's plan focuses only on Allegheny County, but officials say the model may be extended to Westmoreland and southern Armstrong counties — now a part of the newly merged United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The United Way of Allegheny County developed the plan before it merged with United Way of Westmoreland County in July , for a marriage of the region's two largest United Way locals. Together, they control net assets topping $30 million and annual contributions of more than $37 million, the latest tax records show.

Allegheny County's 21-page “United for Children” plan calls on recruiting 2,500 volunteers to achieve several specific goals by 2020, including expanding mentoring programs to reach at least 5,000 youths, and increasing the number of children enrolled in “high-quality” after-school programs from 18,000 to 30,000.

Nonprofits in Allegheny County will compete for $6 million earmarked to strengthen existing programs in line with the plan, as well as to fund innovative ideas rooted in research and proof of long-term impact.

United Way officials developed the plan with input from University of Pittsburgh's Office of Child Development and an advisory committee of 41 representatives from the business, nonprofit and educational sectors.

“One thing that's very clear is government by itself will never solve the problem,” said Dan Onorato, a member of the committee and executive vice president of public policy for Highmark Health.

“We need partners,” said Onorato, who was chief executive of Allegheny County from 2004 to 2012.

An additional $2 million will go toward United Way initiatives under way, including the Be There attendance campaign, Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time and Be A Middle School Mentor.

Grant proposals are due Jan. 15, with the winning agencies to be notified on June 17.

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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