The back-to-school message is simple: "Be there."
The United Way of Allegheny County and its partners Monday launched a campaign aimed at enlisting people who serve youth to encourage students to make attendance a priority.
"It will all be positive," Bob Nelkin, president of the United Way of Allegheny County told about 70 people at Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown. "No threats at kids. No punishment."
The goal is to get at least 300 organizations or people who work with children to sign a pledge card in the next 100 days indicating they will help youth make attendance a priority, be proactive when they notice a child is missing school, and participate in incentive and "Be there" activities.
In the city and county, the county Department of Human Services, Congress of Neighboring Communities and the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh are partners with the United Way.
Additional city partners include Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pittsburgh Promise and A+ Schools. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit is a county partner.
Kathryn Vargas, manager of programs for children and youth of the United Way of Allegheny County, said she thinks relationships will make a difference in tackling the problem.
With many schools scheduled to start in the next two weeks, the partners are trying to get across the message that missing even a day here and a day there for any reason can add up.
A national organization, Attendance Works, notes that students who are chronically absent -- miss 10 percent or more of school days -- are more likely to have difficulty reading at grade level by third grade and are more likely to drop out.
Pete Lavorini, project manager of college and career readiness for Pittsburgh Public Schools, said Pittsburgh began looking at its absenteeism data about a year ago as it was trying to figure out why students weren't getting the academic results their educators wanted.
He said one of the strongest indicators of success was showing up for school every day.
"The more you miss school, the bigger impact it has," he said.
He said there isn't a single solution to the problem but it takes a broad and complex range of strategies, including working with community organizations.
He said solutions also include addressing issues such as bullying; making sure principals and other school employees have the data to identify needs; and ensuring that an effective teacher is in every classroom.
Mr. Nelkin noted the "Be there" campaign ties in with the group's early childhood work; its "Hi 5! Kindergarten Here I Come" campaign aimed at kindergarten awareness, registration and attendance; and its middle school mentorship program.
The United Way is planning additional kickoff celebrations in Forest Hills and McKeesport.
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