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Obama Administration Launches Two Initiatives Targeting Absenteeism

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 19, 2016 3 min read
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The White House and U.S. Department of Education announced two initiatives on Friday designed to raise awareness about and combat chronic absenteeism in schools.

The Success Mentors Initiative, which will be under the administration’s My Brother’s Keeper umbrella, will focus on using school personnel to work closely with students in schools to monitor their attendance, provide support, and connect them to other educational resources. And the Absences Add Up public relations campaign will try to highlight the issue for parents, particularly for those with children in elementary and middle schools.

Both efforts are part of the “Every Student, Every Day” campaign that President Barack Obama’s administration unveiled last October, and which involves the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Justice, as well as the Education Department. The campaign is designed to highlight and present solutions to the estimated 5 million to 7.5 million students the Obama administration says are chronically absent from school every year, or those who miss at least 10 percent (roughly 18 days) of school. They also build on recommendations from the My Brother’s Keeper task force.

Acting Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said on a Friday conference call with reporters that the initiatives will help address underlying issue behind chronic absenteeism, while also making schools safer and more supportive.

“We know that chronic absenteeism is really an epidemic in the country,” King said.

‘Trained and Supported Motivators’

The new My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentors Initiative will take place in school districts in 10 cities, including Boston, New York City, and Seattle. It is designed to connect students with “caring adults who are trained school-linked personnel,” ranging from teachers and AmeriCorps members to coaches and security guards, according to information released by the Obama administration. These mentors will meet with students three times per week, promote student attendance (which will also be a key measure of the program’s success), and connect students to other school-based resources when necessary.

“They will serve as trained and supported motivators, problem solvers, connectors, and advocates to form supportive relationships, identify and celebrate student’s strengths, promote their attendance every day, and connect them with the necessary supports to keep them on track and thriving,” according to the administration.

Initially, the Mentors Initiative will work in the 6th and 9th grades and aims to reach 250,000 students over the next two years. Eventually, working at the full K-12 scale, the goal is for the initiative to reach a million students over the next three to five years.

The administration launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative in 2014, in order to improve educational and career opportunities for boys and young men of color. It partnered with private corporations and nonprofits, and has worked in areas ranging from early education to apprenticeships. (The effort also drew criticism that it was unfairly overlooking women and girls of color.) The work also spawned a separate nonprofit group, the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, that Obama announced last year and that he intends to oversee once he leaves office. That group secured about $85 million in initial funding commitments.

Partners in the Mentors Initiative include the Everybody Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, United Way, the Ad Council, and the Mott Foundation.

“We’ve really got to start measuring this and being aware of this. And once we are, we’re going to be shocked about how big of an issue this is,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everybody Graduates Center.

Raising Parental Awareness

The Ad Council and the Mott Foundation will also be involved in the administration’s second effort regarding the issue, a multi-million dollar “Absences Add Up” campaign.

It will focus on parents of students in grades K-8 and will feature a website, billboard ads, and other outreach efforts designed to highlight the damage for students who are chronically absent. The effort will also make “absence trackers” available to parents, as well as other online tools for educators.

“Through this awareness campaign, the Ad Council and its partners will help raise awareness about how chronic absenteeism affects children in the short- and long-term, and share tips and resources for parents to help address chronic absenteeism,” the administration said.