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Mentors Reduce Chronic Absenteeism, Boost Grad Rates

White House Announces Expansion of the My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentors Initiative to 20 Cities

Getting to high school every day wasn’t a priority for Kajhiada Holmes, 17, until she met Tylon Washington, a caring adult and mentor who showed her why it mattered.  

“He’s the only person that actually made me care more, the only person that made me come to school more than what I was, the only person that made me think positive, rather than negative,” says Holmes, a senior at the High School for Media and Communications in Manhattan.

It’s a simple, data-driven idea -- pair chronically absent students with mentors to boost attendance and increase graduation rates – and it’s working.

One example of this mentoring model can be found at NYC Success Mentor Corps, a program that is working to reduce chronic absenteeism, particularly for at-risk populations.

Researchers found that chronically absent high school students with Success Mentors were 52 percent more likely to stay in school the following year than students without mentors.

The program’s success inspired the White House to go big and launch a similar program nationally. In January, the My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentors Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Education and Johns Hopkins University, launched in 10 cities, including New York, signing on to provide mentors to students in the sixth and ninth grades.

In just over three months, the first cohort of 10 MBK Success Mentor cities has provided mentors to more than 7,400 chronically absent sixth and ninth graders to drive success. 

On April 22, as part of the second anniversary of the launch of My Brother’s Keeper, the White House announced it was expanding the Success Mentors program to 20 more cities for a total of 30 cities nationwide as part of the Every Student, Every Day campaign to eliminate chronic absenteeism.  The goal of the national initiative: to continue expanding until mentors reach 1 million students across grade levels in three to five years.

Dr. Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and co-chair of the national initiative says, “This is the largest school effort ever to connect young people who are struggling to get to school each day with caring adults by leveraging existing resources in more effective ways.  With the help of data, this initiative is enabling chronically absent students to become regular attendees which helps boost graduation and college ready rates.” 

Detroit is one the new MBK Success Mentor cities and the location of an upcoming GradNation Community Summit on May 5. 

Alycia Meriweather, Interim Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools says: “Chronic absenteeism is a critical and effective forward looking indicator for aligning and scaling targeted interventions. We look forward to the lessons learned from multi-city collaboration, technical support provided via USDOE and the associated positive outcomes to be realized by the youth we serve in the city of Detroit.”

“Communities are embracing this MBK success mentor model because it offers the opportunity to scale student support systems by strategically leveraging untapped community resources - using data, human capital and the passion of caring adults linked to our schools,” adds Leslie Cornfeld, Special Advisor to the Secretary of Education at the U.S. Deptartment of Education.

Several America’s Promise Alliance partners are involved in the national initiative, including Everyone Graduates Center, MENTOR, Attendance Works, United Way, Corporation for National and Community Service and City Year.   All are providing critical assistance in identifying mentors, as well as strategic advice and training support. 

How Mentors Fight Chronic Absenteeism

An estimated 5 million to 7.5 million students are chronically absent in the United States. Defined as missing 10 percent of school days, chronic absenteeism harms student achievement and puts students at higher risk of dropping out.

New York City is home to the country’s largest school district at 1.1 million students, 25 percent of them chronically absent.

“In New York City, roughly 100,000 students are absent every single day for hundreds of different reasons,” says Sarah Jonas, Deputy Executive Director at the New York City Department of Education’s

Office of Community Schools, which oversees the NYC program. “This can run the gamut from asthma, to no feeling of connection to school, to ‘I babysit my younger sibling, I can’t be there today.’”

The mentor program turns chronically absent students in high-needs areas back toward school in part through consistent communication. “Success Mentors” interact with their assigned students during the school day at least three times a week.

Mentors can come from within the school, such as teachers, security guards and even peers, or from elsewhere in the community, such as AmeriCorps members and staff from local nonprofit partners.

Mentors keep the interactions with their mentees enthusiastic and positive. They celebrate their mentees’ strengths and work to remove the barriers that keep students from attending school, solving a transportation problem, for example, or helping students finish assignments.

When the problems are more serious, mentors help connect the students and their families to the appropriate community resources.

“Folks who are struggling, they need someone who really cares, who is looking out for their interests and looking at them holistically,” says Tylon Washington, a filmmaker and Kajhiada’s mentor. “When people are dealing with the kinds of issues that Kajhiada is dealing with, they really need someone to constantly motivate them, to let them know it’s going to be okay.”

When students are absent, mentors call to express how much the child is missed. If the parent answers, the mentor keeps the conversation upbeat in an effort to gain trust and work together on getting the child to come to school more regularly.

Two Weeks More in School

The NYC Success Mentor Corps runs in 130 community schools, where roughly 6,900 students are paired with mentors. Such schools serve as hubs for students to learn, families to access social services and neighbors to congregate.

At each school, the principal leads weekly meetings with various stakeholders, including school administrators, mentors and representatives from the school’s partner organizations. Using an electronic system that tracks attendance, academic performance, behavior and other issues in real time, the team reviews data and trends to investigate the root causes for chronic absenteeism among that group of kids and to brainstorm solutions.

Examining the first three years of the program, starting with the 2010-2011 school year, researchers from Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center found that chronically absent students who had mentors gained nine days—almost two full weeks—of school.

“That impact was magnified for those who were in transitional housing,” says Sarah Peterson-Perloff, the Director of Research and Evaluation at New York City Department of Education’s Office of Community Schools, and who works closely with Jonas. “It was especially helpful for those who really needed it, really needed that connection, that certainty and that security.”

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to improve them, join the GradNation Learning Community. Just send an email to Corey Benjamin with your name, email address and organizational affiliation.

To learn more about state-level work to increase graduation rates, check out the GradNation State Activation initiative, a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson, focused on increasing high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.