First graders Davaisha Bush, left, and Miranda Diggs react as their names are called during the United Way Be There 30-Day Challenge ceremony honoring students' attendance at Pittsburgh Faison K-5 in Homewood on Friday.
By Wesley Yiin / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"It is the school's job to educate, but it's your job to be here!" bellowed Russell Patterson, assistant principal of Pittsburgh Faison K-5.
He stood on the stage of the multipurpose room while the school's students sat cross-legged on the floor, antsy and noisy.
They were there for the 30-Day Challenge Awards ceremony, during which over 300 of the school's 518 students would be honored for either having perfect attendance for 30 school days or missing just one day of school.
Attendance has historically been an issue for Faison, said LouAnn Zwieryznski, principal of the school.
Two years ago, before the Homewood school started trying to improve student attendance, she said, it had one of the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, with 33 percent of its students missing 10 percent or more days of school.
Since then, she said, the statistic has improved due to programs such as the 30-Day Challenge and the help of local groups like the Homewood Children's Village.
Detria Dixon, who works for Homewood Children's Village as the school's site director, stood on stage for a large portion of the ceremony, giving out raffle prizes. She cheered as students' names were called, congratulating those that came to the stage for prizes. "You can't learn if you're not in school," she said. "Teachers can't teach you if you're not here."
Over the past couple of years, Ms. Dixon has worked tirelessly to help improve attendance at the school. She put up posters at the school showing attendance-related statistics. She asked parents to sign a pledge to encourage their children to come to school. Each time a student was absent, she and her colleagues at the village would call home to inform the family and ask what was going on, in an effort to better understand and curb unnecessary absences.
And, last fall, when she heard about the Allegheny County United Way "Be There" attendance campaign, she began a partnership with the organization that would lead to the implementation of the 30-Day Challenge. She spoke of the importance of developing social groups and receiving nutritious meals, which are provided twice a day for many of the students.
Ms. Dixon is not the city's only advocate for increased student attendance.
At last week's "Be There" awards, which honored adults in the community who have served as positive forces in promoting attendance, she was one of eight award winners, which included teachers, parents and others who have been involved in the countywide campaign.
One winner was Dwayne Barker, a school volunteer and leader of an after-school program at Pittsburgh King K-8.
But most importantly, Mr. Barker is the parent of two children, one in fifth grade and another in pre-K.
He has led multiple parent councils over the years and said he would regularly ask fellow parents what they thought of the schools only to receive an overwhelmingly negative response.
"Well I would say, 'What are you doing to making the changes possible?' No one was doing anything but complaining," he said.
And so, Mr. Barker started a parent network, in which parents would volunteer to go into schools and assist teachers, students and various staff members. It was an effort just to get them to be more involved, he said.
"Education starts at home so, of course, the parents have to be involved," he said. "When they aren't getting students to school, it affects students immensely."
Vicki Pava, a teacher at Chartiers Valley School District's Intervention Center, also received a "Be There" award.
Although she is trained in elementary education and special education, she worked exclusively with high school students over the past academic year.
The key to her success in improving student performance and attendance, she said, was to individualize the curriculum and education for each student.
She said that by giving them the attention they needed, they learned to trust teachers and understand their role in facilitating education.
"Sometimes you just need to change things a little," she said. "Each kid has their own learning style, each kid has their own way to follow through."
Events like the 30-Day Challenge, in which each Faison student's name was put up on a wall and removed only after a student had missed school, are perhaps providing students with the attention they need.
Ms. Dixon recalls both parents and students paying close attention to names on the wall, often joking with her not to remove names for excused absences, such as doctor's visits.
Ms. Dixon said she and Ms. Zwieryznski hope to hold at least three more 30-Day Challenges over the next school year. She hopes to hold at least one event to honor parental contributions to increased attendance.
Wesley Yiin: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1723.
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