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A Pittsburgh program tackles chronic absenteeism using community volunteers


Back here in the U.S., more than 1 in 4 students nationwide are considered chronically absent, so communities across the U.S. are getting creative in how they get kids to school. From member station WESA in Pittsburgh, Jillian Forstadt reports on how residents of one neighborhood are doing it with vans, grandmas, and a lot of love.


JILLIAN FORSTADT, BYLINE: It's just after 7 a.m., and 83-year-old Kathy Sellers is running through a list of phone numbers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Please leave your message after the tone.


KATHY SELLERS: Good morning, Ashley (ph), this is your nana wake-up call. I hope you have a wonderful day today.

FORSTADT: Sellers, who has been awake since 530, is cheery even over voicemail, but she especially lights up for those who pick up the phone.

SELLERS: I hope you have a great day today.


SELLERS: I love you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I love you too, Ms. Sellers. Thank you.

SELLERS: Bye bye.

FORSTADT: The nana wake-up calls, as she puts it, are part of a community effort to connect families with the resources needed to ensure their kids get to and from school each day.


SELLERS: Good morning. This is your wake-up call.

FORSTADT: The work is centered around Pittsburgh Arlington, a neighborhood elementary and middle school. More than half of students there are considered chronically absent, one of the highest rates in the district. Arlington isn't alone in addressing chronic absenteeism. This year, a third of all students at Pittsburgh Public are considered chronically absent, meaning they miss at least 10% of school days. Research shows that can cause serious problems. It affects whether a student is likely to read by third grade or graduate from high school.

SELLERS: I hope you have a great day today, and if you have any questions, you can call me back at this number.

FORSTADT: The nanas program tries to intervene early on.

SELLERS: Because we live in this area where - and this time where the kids are falling between the cracks, and we're trying not to let that happen.

FORSTADT: In addition to the calls, families in the program receive free van rides to and from Arlington. Many of them lack the transportation or resources to get their students there otherwise. Pittsburgh Public Schools doesn't provide bus rides to students who live less than a mile and a half from the school building. More than 60% of all students at Arlington are still expected to walk or find another way to school. Vervina Nelson's son is one of them.

VERVINA NELSON: And he's only 5 years old. So it's like the rain, the snow when it's cold - it's too much. I mean, he's going up hills, across - like, it's a walk.

FORSTADT: Nelson is a care assistant at a hospital and has to be at work long before the school day starts. Because Arlington doesn't have before school care for kids with working parents, Nelson has to rely on her oldest daughter.

NELSON: So if she didn't have to be to work, I would have her take him, or I would try to call my sister and have her take him, or he missed a lot of days and had to stay home with my mom.

FORSTADT: He ended up missing much of the first two months of school because Nelson didn't have another option. District officials say that while schools are partnering with community groups to fill in the gaps, they can't reach everyone.

NELSON: There was times where the days that he was missing, he was begging to go to school.

FORSTADT: Then the staff at Arlington connected her with the nana program. She now gets her son ready for school before she leaves for work, and a family member will make sure he gets on the school van. She loves getting that morning call from her designated nana, Gwen, too.

NELSON: She's a joy. Good morning. How are you? I'm calling to check on you and the kids. And I'll sit on the phone and, you know, I'll tell her - we'll tell each other that, oh, I'm going to pray for you today. You pray for me. You know, she's a sweetheart.

TIFFINI GORMAN: It could be, you know, things that are happening at home. It could be things happening in the neighborhood.

FORSTADT: Tiffini Gorman with the nonprofit A+ Schools says chronic absenteeism is an issue for the entire community to take on.

GORMAN: It could be the child has mental health issues or anxiety. It could be clothing.

FORSTADT: A+ Schools is working with the district to address the problem from multiple angles. Gorman says too often, families are blamed for not getting their kids to school, but resolving chronic absenteeism.

GORMAN: It's not just one person's responsibility. I think it's 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.

FORSTADT: In this neighborhood, that starts with something as small as a morning phone call.

For NPR News, I'm Jillian Forstadt in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jillian Forstadt