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Cleveland schools relaunch campaign to combat chronic absenteeism

Pep rally CMSD attendance
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
CMSD hosted a pep rally to relaunch its Get 2 School attendance campaign Wednesday at East Professional Center.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District hosted a pep rally Wednesday at East Professional Center to re-launch its campaign to cut chronic student absenteeism, after student attendance took a dive during the pandemic-related school closures.

CMSD CEO Eric Gordon was joined by Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin, Cuyahoga County Poet Laureate Honey Bell-Bey, the Cleveland Browns Foundation Executive Director Renee Harvey, and keynote motivational speaker Mr. I’M POSSIBLE in encouraging students to stay in school.

“We can’t teach you if you’re not here, and we care that you’re there,” Gordon said.

Gordon noted CMSD research that suggests students who miss more than 10 days each school year have a 34% decreased chance of remaining on track for graduation; a decreased reading score of 12 points on average; and a decreased math score of 15 points on average.

The program started in 2015 and officials credit it with decreasing the number of chronically absent students. The district defines that as students missing more than 10 days in a school year. But absentee rates have increased dramatically during the pandemic across the state and the country.

The Get 2 School program involves a variety of approaches to try to improve students’ attendance. Funding from the Cleveland Browns and other local support means students are provided with rewards, including tickets to Cedar Point and big local events, for good attendance. Browns players have also visited schools to talk to students about why attendance matters.

Meanwhile, the school district – with support from local churches and other agencies – has created phone banks to call parents or guardians and figure out why students aren’t making it to school. Volunteers also go door-to-door on occasion to talk about why attendance matters.

Gordon said the district and its partners have tried to make sure students’ basic needs are met when they come to school, including providing clean clothes and uniforms and school supplies, which is another barrier to students coming to school.

 Members of the John Marshall High School drum line perform during CMSD's Get 2 School campaign relaunch event at East Professional Center Wednesday.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Members of the John Marshall High School drum line perform during CMSD's Get 2 School campaign relaunch event at East Professional Center Wednesday.

Honey Bell-Beycompared issues students are dealing with at home – which lead to chronic absenteeism - to being dealt a certain hand of cards in a game. She pulled out what looked like a deck of large-format playing cards but representing struggles she had growing up, from depression to absent parents to poverty.

“Sometimes some things will come your way and it just doesn’t seem fair, but guess what, you have to play the cards that were dealt for you, but you can’t play it if you refuse to even show up,” Bell-Bey said.

She said successes she’s been able to achieve in life were due to her putting in the effort and “showing up,” a recurring theme throughout the pep rally.

Keith L. Brown, known as Mr. I’M POSSIBLE, told students he overcame being labeled as a student requiring “special ed” and being “at risk” to owning his own company, among many other achievements.

“I need you all to understand today that there are going to be some issues in your life that are going to come, but whatever you do, you’ve got to show up,” he said. “Never let anyone’s negative opinion of you become your opinion of yourself.”

Akron Public Schools similarly struggles with chronic absenteeism. APS school board members heard a presentation during their August full board meeting about a postcard-mailing initiative which involved K-3 students’ families receiving a postcard in the mail, or notes sent home in a backpack from their teacher explaining what the student missed while absent.

Officials said the program had a positive effect overall on student attendance.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.