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Battling student absenteeism with grandmas, vans and a lot of love

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

Each weekday morning, just after 7 a.m., Kathryn Sellers runs through a list of five phone numbers. They belong to parents at Pittsburgh Arlington, a nearby pre-K-8 public school.

Sellers, who has been awake since 5:30 a.m., brings a cheerful start to each family's day, even over voicemail. She wishes each one a great day, adding, "I love you" before hanging up.

The nana wake-up calls, as Sellers calls them, are part of a community effort to connect families with the resources needed to ensure their kids get to and from school 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.

Rates of chronic absenteeism in U.S. schools soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many districts are still struggling to get students back into the classroom.

Roughly 34% of all students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools are considered chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 10% of school days. Research shows that this can cause serious problems, affecting whether a student is likely to read by third grade or graduate from high school.

With more than half of students frequently absent, Pittsburgh Arlington has one of the highest rates of chronic absence in the district. Because of that, the nanas program tries to intervene early on.

In addition to the warm calls, families in the program receive free van rides to and from Pittsburgh Arlington each day. Many of them lack the transportation or resources to get their children there otherwise.

The school district doesn't provide busing 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.

According to the district, more than 60% of Pittsburgh Arlington's approximately 353 students fall within that range. Vervina Nelson's son, a kindergartener there, is among them.

"And he's only 5 years old. So it's like the rain, the snow, when it's cold, it's too much — and it's a nice walk," Nelson says. "I mean, he's going up hills, like it's a walk."

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.

Because Pittsburgh Arlington doesn't have before-school care for kids with parents who have to be at work, Nelson has to rely on her oldest daughter.

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

She even called the school board to see whether it could arrange transportation, but came up empty. District officials said that while schools are partnering with community groups to fill in the gaps, they can't reach everyone.

Nelson says 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."

Then, a few weeks into the school year, Pittsburgh Arlington connected Nelson with the nanas program. 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, calls each morning too. 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."

The nanas program was born from a partnership between Pittsburgh Arlington and the Brashear Association, a neighborhood 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 can carry 36 kids to and from Arlington each day. Crystal Caldwell, the school's principal, says roughly 20 students remain on the program's waitlist.

"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.'"

In the meantime, the school is working with other community partners to come up with additional solutions. The school pays its staff to walk students most of the way home, and a nearby church is expected to launch a before-school care program this spring.

Caldwell said that she's also working to make the school a place that students want to attend. Pittsburgh Arlington has partnered with local arts organizations to provide special programming students can look forward to, and the school social worker meets with each class to give the students pep talks on coming to school.

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

That's why Tiffini Gorman, director of strategic partnerships at the nonprofit A+ Schools, is working with Pittsburgh Public Schools districtwide to address the attendance problem from multiple angles.

"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."

A+ Schools helped advocate for the city to install better sidewalks on the way to Pittsburgh Arlington and worked with the Brashear Association to get funding for the nanas program.

Gorman said that, too often, families are blamed for not getting their kids to school, but chronic absenteeism is an issue for the entire community to take on.

"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."

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