Nan Austin

Feds try to take mentoring to scale, keep kids in school

“Eighty percent of success is showing up,” a quote widely credited to Woody Allen, applies to school as well as life (and elections).

Fresh efforts to get frequently absent students back in their desks targets 10 cities and two transition years, sixth grade and the first year of high school.

An estimated 6 million students, about 1 in 8, miss a month or more of school each year. Two days a month adds up to missing 10 percent of the school year, what counts as chronic absenteeism. Excused or not, kids who do not hear the lessons fall behind in their schoolwork and miss out on social connections. The risk rises these no-shows will drop school altogether before graduating.

Studies say the best way to reverse the slide is to have what most of us took for granted all along – adults who expect better. Mentors do great things, but there aren’t enough volunteers to go around.

The U.S. Department of Education program My Brother’s Keeper takes mentoring to the next level – going pro. Its Success Mentors Initiative enlists every level of school staff, training them to be motivators, problem solvers, connectors and advocates for three to five at-risk kids each. Phase II will bring in college students to swell the ranks and expand the service.

The plan is to have these mentors meet with their charges three times a week, holding them to their goals, talking through teen drama and tackling the home problems that get in the way of getting to school. The program will link families with social services and help parents find solutions.

None of the 10 cities is in California, where higher costs and strong worker protections would make a schoolwide staff push problematic. But in Stanislaus County the approach looks familiar. The United Way of Stanislaus County supports mentor-counselors at seven middle schools around the county, coordinating with teachers and checking in with parents to be sure their highest-risk students keep going forward, not sideways.

The Graduation Coach program has grown each year, serving 260 seventh- and eighth-graders in 2015-16, said Francine DiCiano, CEO of Stanislaus County’s United Way.

The extra support has changed lives, DiCiano said, evidenced by steady or rising grades when other, comparable students declined by half a letter grade and fell below a C level. One student went from Ds in science and math in her first quarter of seventh grade to a B in math and A in science by the end of eighth.

Attendance improves, with one school tallying up that Graduation Coach students missed about 10 days a year on average, versus about 17 days for comparable students not in the program. Graduation Coach students averaged two or less tardies, compared to five for comparable students without a coach.

“This was a promising difference,” DiCiano said. Also promising were teacher reports that students in the United Way program paid better attention in class and particularly improved in math.

The national United Way helped the U.S. Department of Education and Johns Hopkins University develop the new, federal program. The Ad Council, Mott Foundation and the Arnold Foundation are helping pay for it.

The statement unveiling the program cites a report by America’s Promise Alliance that found students in the poorest communities typically experience “relationship poverty,” a painfully correct way of saying these children have no functional adult to rely on.

Having a caring adult in kids’ lives matters, the study found. Having a caring adult in school, however, had the largest impact of all – reducing the likelihood of leaving school by 25 percent. That likely follows because school is the only constant in too many young lives, a place with a hot meal, a steady routine and dependable people.

It turns out the nagging parents we spent our teen years rolling our eyes at were the best thing ever. Who knew back then that today there would be so many kids without any caring and capable adult in their lives.

But truancy is not always about being destitute and desperate. A second campaign targets kids whose parents simply have other priorities. Called Absences Add Up, the marketing program aims to educate elementary parents about the importance of showing up to getting educated.

Kindergarten and first grade – the years kids learn to read and write – typically have the highest number of absences, setting kids up to fail from the start.

The Ad Council is spreading the word, on billboards, bus shelters and posters in store windows and doctors offices. But the core component will be a still-under-construction website with tools and information for parents, schools, community leaders and afterschool programs at http://absencesaddup.org.

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