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A Pittsburgh group tackles student chronic absenteeism with grandmas, vans and a lot of love

Woman looks at cell phone.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Kathryn Sellers makes calls to five Pittsburgh Arlington PreK-8 families on Wednesday, Feb. 14. Sellers is part of a program that provides students with free van rides to and from school each day, as well as caring nanas who check in with families daily.

On weekday mornings, Kathryn Sellers of Beltzhoover runs through a list of five phone numbers just after 7 a.m. Each belongs to a parent at Pittsburgh Arlington, the neighborhood PreK-8 public school.

Sellers — who has been awake since 5:30 a.m. — brings a cheerful start to each family’s day, whether or not they pick up the phone. She wishes each one a great day, adding “I love you” before hanging up.

Sellers said that her morning calls to parents at Arlington have contributed a new sense of purpose to her retired life. It’s a task she looks forward to each day.

“Because we live in this time where the kids are falling between the cracks, and we're trying not to let that happen,” Sellers said.

In addition to the warm calls, families in the program receive free van rides to and from Arlington each day. It’s all part of a larger effort to get kids the resources they need to attend and thrive at school.

As of this month, roughly 34% of all Pittsburgh Public Schools students are considered chronically absent, up from 25% a decade ago.

Absence rates at Arlington, however, remain among the highest in the district: Fifty-four percent of students are considered chronically absent, according to the district’s data dashboard, down from 74% during the 2021-2022 school year. Students are deemed chronically absent if they miss 10% or more of days in the school year.

The nanas program targets those students, many of whom frequently miss school because their families lack the transportation or resources to get them there otherwise.

Pittsburgh Public Schools doesn’t provide bussing to students who live less than a mile and a half from the school building, instead asking them to walk or find another way to school.

School hallway with eagle mural
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA

According to the district, more than 60% of Arlington’s approximately 353 students fall within that range.

Vervina Nelson’s son, in kindergarten at Arlington, is among them. She said the uphill walk is too much for the five-year-old, especially in poor weather.

But driving him hasn’t necessarily been an option, either. Nelson works at a hospital as a care assistant and often has to be there long before the school day starts. Arlington doesn’t have before-school care for kids with working parents, so Nelson has to rely on her oldest daughter.

“If she doesn’t have to be to work, I would have her take him, or I would try to call my sister and have her take him,” Nelson said. “Or he missed a lot of days and had to stay home with my mom.”

She even called the school board to see if they could arrange transportation, but came up empty. Nelson said her son ended up missing much of the first two months of school.

“There were times where, the days that he was missing, he was begging to go to school,” she said.

Arlington connected Nelson with the nanas program a few weeks into the school year. She now gets her son ready for school before she leaves for work, and a family member makes sure he gets on the school van.

Her designated nana, Gwen, also calls each morning. Nelson said the conversation always ends with “I love you.”

“She's a joy,” Nelson said. “We'll tell each other, ‘Oh, I'm going to pray for you today. Will you pray for me?’ She's a sweetheart.”

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Spread thin, school leaders lean on community partnerships

The nanas program was born from a partnership between Arlington and the Brashear Association, a Hilltop-area nonprofit.

The association also hosts a food bank, after-school youth programming, employment services and utility and rental assistance, all of which families in the nanas program have access to.

With two, nine-seat vans that each run two routes, the nanas program has the capacity to carry 36 kids to and from Arlington each day.

According to Arlington principal Crystal Caldwell, roughly 20 students remain on the program’s waitlist.

Caldwell, who came to the school in July 2023, said that she was answering calls from parents interested in the nanas program last summer before she even knew what it was.

“I wish we could have more partnerships like that, that we could have vans giving the children door-to-door [transportation],” Caldwell said. “Our waitlist is so long because families are like, ‘Hey, I'd really love this.’”

Arlington’s bussing issues stem, in part, from transportation modifications approved by the district’s school board in July 2021, in response to a bus driver shortage. Board members voted to expand the walk-zones at 12 elementary and middle schools, in turn eliminating 22 bus routes.

The change impacted transportation designations for 760 students, with 63 students affected at each school, on average. While the majority of schools lost one or two buses, Arlington lost four — a change that impacted 212 of the school’s students that year.

Caldwell was an assistant principal at another school in the district when the policy first went into place. She said most hiccups caused by the policy change were easily addressed there, although the same can’t be said for Arlington, even nearly three years later.

“I'm not talking out of turn when I say I don't think anyone's really pumped to have that as a policy,” Caldwell said. “But I see the direct impact here at Arlington.”

Arlington’s administrators are now trying to find other solutions for the school’s more than 200 students expected to walk. Caldwell said she pays her staff to walk students deep into their neighborhoods after school “so that they almost get them to their house.”

Concerns about the neighborhood’s physical safety were addressed by the City of Pittsburgh’s Safe Routes to School program, which installed better sidewalks and curbs on streets leading up to and outside of the school in 2023.

At the same time, educators at Arlington are working to make the school a place students want to attend. Caldwell said she’s partnering with local organizations like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to implement special programs for students to look forward to, and the school social worker makes a point to speak with each class to get them excited about coming to school.

“We're doing everything we can to get children to feel like this is the coolest place to be,” she said. “We're just still up against that barrier sometimes with what happens in family situations that's out of their control.”

School principal sits at desk
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Arlington principal Crystal Caldwell says that although the school is doing everything it can to get children to come to school, individual family situations still pose barriers to student attendance.

Caldwell said students sometimes miss school because they don't have a family member that can bring them there, or arrive late regularly because it fits their families' work schedules better.

For families like Nelson’s, Caldwell said the school is working to start a before-school care program. Doing so, however, requires staff that can supervise students eating breakfast or participating in activities before the school day begins.

Caldwell said teachers at Arlington are engaged in professional development and data analysis every morning.

“Because of that, there aren't a lot of staff that can be, for instance, in the cafeteria, because they're learning or they're delving into data so that they can really manage exactly what we need to do to help meet all of the varied needs that exist in a school,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said her staff is already spread thin from attempting to address the academic and social-emotional learning loss precipitated by pandemic interruptions.

“The old adage that ‘it takes a village' is accurate,” she added.

“All of us need to work together”

As a result, Caldwell said the school is leaning on its community partners, who she said are “jumping on board with what they can offer.” Just half a mile from Arlington, Lighthouse Memorial Christian Center is set to launch a free before-school care and transportation program this spring.

Janet Denillo, the center’s administrator, said that up to 20 children will be picked up from their homes and offered a hot breakfast at the facility before being transported to school on time.

“This community has a lot of children, and a lot of children that need help,” Denillo said.

During the 2021-2022 school year, more than one in four students nationwide were considered chronically absent, meaning they missed more than three full weeks of school.

Chronic absence, research shows, is a leading indicator of whether a student is likely to read proficiently by third grade or graduate from high school. Those outcomes are compounded for students from low-income households.

Tiffini Gorman, director of strategic partnerships at the nonprofit A+ Schools, said that addressing the issue requires a holistic approach. The organization is working closely with educators at Arlington and Perry High School to better understand and address trends in chronic absence, and will soon start similar work in the Hill District.

“If you call 50 families, there might be 50 different things that happened. It could be things that are happening at home. It could be the child has mental health issues or anxiety,” Gorman said. “It could be clothing. It could be things happening in the neighborhood.”

Gorman said that’s why A+ Schools is working to address the problem from multiple angles. It helped advocate for the city to install better sidewalks on the way to Arlington, and worked with the Brashear Association to get funding for the nanas program.

The organization also provided coats, shoes and other necessities to students walking to and from school each day. Gorman said that, as an incentive for students to attend, A+ Schools helped Arlington purchase the materials needed to start a middle school basketball team.

“It’s such a complicated issue, and it's not just one person's responsibility,” she added. “I think all of us need to work together to make sure that kids have what they need, and have a school that they want to go to.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.