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Trying to Make School Absenteeism Less Chronic

Forty-three percent of Pittsburgh public high school students were chronically absent during the 2013-14 academic year.

More than 250 education stakeholders are expected to attend today’s School Attendance Matters Conference hosted by the United Way of Allegheny County and several other sponsors to discuss ways to change the trend.

After data about chronic absenteeism – missing 18  class days or more or 10 percent of the school year - showed high numbers in Allegheny County schools two years ago, the United Way started the ‘Be There’ initiative in Pittsburgh about a year and a half ago. The program aims to spread awareness about the negative impacts of chronic absenteeism on not just the students missing class, but all students.

The conference keynote speaker Dr. Heather Weiss, director of Harvard family research project at Harvard graduate school of education, focuses on family and community engagement in ensuring students are in school. She points to a research study in Chicago that looked at the difference between the schools in high poverty areas in Chicago where students were doing well in math and literature. One of the five key factors was family and community engagement.

“One of the things they discovered was that when kids are regularly attending school, the teacher doesn’t have to teach the half of the kids that weren’t there yesterday, today, thereby kind of boring the kids that were there yesterday,” Weiss said.

She said attendance is the pathway to better instruction. When she talks about attendance and its contribution to the achievement gap, she said she means both in school and out of school activity attendance.

“And what we’re seeing in policy conversations about the achievement gap is increased understanding of the fact that the disparities between in-school learning time and out-of-school learning time for economically disadvantaged kids is part of what’s contributing to our achievement gap,” she said.

Kathryn Vargus, manager of programs for children and youth at the United Way of Allegheny County said ‘Be There’ representatives are involved in 21 districts in the county with a goal to soon be in all 43 districts.

The initiative holds events and training sessions for school social workers to stress staying positive and telling students they want them to be in school.

“What we were seeing previously is that school attendance isn’t something that’s talked about until there’s something wrong, until it’s already in a negative space,” Vargus said.

Shauna McMillan, ‘Be There’ program director for the United Way of Allegheny County, said in one of the schools the program works with, Pittsburgh Schiller Middle School on the North Side, has decreased from 27 percent chronic absenteeism at the end of last school year to 10.4 percent. McMillan said ‘Be There’ placed an intern in the school to support the attendance work led by the principal and staff.  

Vargus said the conversation between schools and parents has to be continued after today’s conference.

“But really the important thing is that we are all recognizing that in order for kids to be successful, the first step is being in school every day ready to learn and having the right supports in that environment so you are ready to learn,” she said.  

The conference is one of 100 community Grad Nation Summits held by America’s Promise Alliance to discuss issues affecting student graduation.