PITTSBURGH – The Richard King Mellon Foundation is deploying its philanthropic funding to focus more attention on rising rates of school absenteeism, as a potentially important way to reduce rising crime rates and other social ills, and to increase lifetime opportunities for young people.
“The data suggests that school closures due to COVID-19 sent many kids into a spiral, exacerbating already worrisome rates of school attendance,” said Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation. “Chronic absenteeism has ominous implications – immediately, in terms of crime rates and other societal challenges, and long-term, in higher dropout rates and lost opportunities for lifetime prosperity.”
“Through our funding, we hope to identify and advance proven solutions to reduce school absenteeism, and also to draw more attention broadly to this important issue,” said Reiman. “Social problems, such as violence, always are complex, with a multitude of contributing factors. But we hope we all can agree that, if students are not in school, negative outcomes are more likely — for the students, their families and our communities.”
Data from the state Department of Education shows that rates of chronic absenteeism – defined as missing 10 percent of school days or more, for any reason – now are higher than 50 percent in some area school districts. In individual local schools, within districts, the highest chronic-absenteeism rates are approaching 70 percent. Across Pittsburgh and adjacent school districts, approximately 11,000 students were chronically absent in the 2020-2021 school year, missing 18 days of school or more.
The potential consequences of such rates of absenteeism are significant. For instance, a study in Rhode Island reported that 94 percent of Rhode Island’s juvenile offenders have a history of truancy. (Truancy is a subset of school absenteeism, dealing strictly with unexcused absences from school. School absenteeism is a broader measure, and includes excused absences, such as those due to illness or family emergency).
In light of such data, in February of this year, the Foundation issued a Request for Proposals to solicit ideas from school districts and other nonprofit organizations, to reduce absenteeism in early-childhood and K-12 education, particularly among economically disadvantaged students.
The Foundation already has awarded five grants toward the effort, funding a range of approaches to identify and implement solutions to chronic school absenteeism, particularly among disadvantaged children and youth. And more grants are expected later this year, as the final deadline for RFP responses was Sept. 9.
Grants already awarded under the initiative, totaling more than $2 million, are:
- A $250,000 grant to the Steel Valley School District. Steel Valley has partnered with the Pittsburgh Study, a consortium of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh researchers, to generate a comprehensive assessment of the factors contributing to chronic school absenteeism. The funding will enable the district to begin implementing initiatives to address those factors.
- A $250,000 grant to A+ Schools to partner with the Pittsburgh Public Schools to reduce chronic absenteeism, utilizing methods developed by national nonprofit EveryDay Labs that, in other cities, have generated 10 percent to 15 percent reductions in chronic absenteeism.
- A $775,000 grant to Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County, Inc., to fund Attendance Specialists to identify and serve students at risk of chronic absenteeism in the Burrell, Greensburg-Salem and New Kensington-Arnold school districts, and the Northern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center.
- A $400,000 grant to Propel Schools Foundation, also to fund Attendance Specialists. Propel Schools is a charter-school system serving more than 3,000 K-12 students in Allegheny County.
- A $400,000 grant to Westmoreland Community Action, to address the transportation issues that WCA’s research has shown is a primary cause of absenteeism in preschools. The goal of the initiative is to reduce by 25 percent the number of school absences in its Head Start and Pre-K Counts classrooms that are caused by transportation issues.
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About the Richard King Mellon Foundation: Founded in 1947, the Richard King Mellon Foundation is the largest foundation in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and one of the 50 largest in the world. The Foundation’s 2021 year-end net assets were $3.4 billion, and its Trustees in 2021 disbursed $152 million in grants and program-related investments. The Foundation focuses its funding on six primary program areas, delineated in its 2021-2030 Strategic Plan.