Community Partnership Focuses on Chronic Absenteeism Among Public School Students

Kathy Humphrey in a gray suit at a podium

Missing as few as two days of school per month can negatively affect a student’s academic performance, according to the nonprofit Attendance Works organization.

To help end chronic absenteeism, the University of Pittsburgh is partnering with the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania in its Be There initiative. United Way, citing Attendance Works’s data on the effects of missing school, works with regional schools to encourage attendance via one-on-one mentoring systems between staff and students.

Pitt has made a commitment to encourage more than 100 of the University’s faculty, staff and students to volunteer at Pittsburgh Public Schools to meet and mentor students and “show them that Pitt — and our entire community — cares,” said Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement, chief of staff and secretary to the Board of Trustees at Pitt. The University also has provided $30,000 and will help to raise another $30,000 in matching funds to support the initiative.

“Strengthening communities is not just one of Pitt’s goals — it is a core pillar in our strategic plan. We want to be good neighbors, and we want to be a part of the success of our city,” said Humphrey. “That’s why we are so proud to expand our work with United Way on the Be There initiative to help our city’s students receive the best possible education. But the first step in doing so is making sure that students show up for school.”

The volunteers from Pitt will be provided structured opportunities to volunteer within neighboring public schools through three programs: the Be There Buddy Project, Be A Middle School Mentor and Be There attendance challenges, as well as have opportunities to read to and connect with students in a meaningful way.

Be There’s Buddy Project pairs at-risk students with adult mentors who meet daily with students, set goals and follow through to ensure improved attendance on an ongoing basis. Since its inception in 2013, Be There has reached 33,000 students with positive messaging and programming through incentive programs.

In the last year, the initiative was implemented in eight schools across three school districts. Attendance rates improved with the students, with some school districts seeing as high as a 31 percent increase.

The partnership with Pitt will allow United Way to expand the Be There program and reach 11,000 more students in more ways, including the Be There texting pilot, which is expected to reach an estimated 2,200 families in Allegheny County. The initiative involves directly texting families using United Way’s 2-1-1 Southwest service to help families with questions about basic housing needs and home-related issues such as eviction, utility shut-offs and lack of access to food, which can contribute to students missing school.

“We are excited to announce this partnership with Pitt to engage more volunteers, expand our proven programs and, most importantly, continue making an impact in the lives of even more local families and students,” said Bob Nelkin, United Way president and CEO.