A grandmother told the volunteer who knocked on her door that she had just received custody of her grandchildren but didn’t know how to register them for school.  A mother recounted how her child had only one school uniform, and it was hard to make sure it was clean every day.

In both cases, the children had become chronically absent from the Baltimore City Public Schools.  But rather than a stern warning from an attendance officer, the families received a visit from a volunteer working with a local church or nonprofit group.

The focus of the School Every Day! initiative in Baltimore is to break down the barriers to school attendance.  Volunteers deliver alarm clocks and school uniforms, umbrellas and winter coats to make sure children show up for school regularly.  They connect families with the support they need, whether financial or emotional, in the broader community.

“We like to use a feather, not a hammer,” says School Every Day! Coordinator Heidi Stevens.  The goal is to have volunteers provide one caring contact for every child every week.

School Every Day! also uses volunteers to reinforce the value of school attendance by:

  • Posting flyers that stress the importance of children being in school every day.
  • Writing letters of encouragement to chronically absent students and their parents.  These letters, often written by senior citizens, may encourage students to return to school or congratulate those who have started attending more regularly.
  • Creating a peer-to-peer messaging system where older students write to younger kids letting them know they are missed when they’re absent and that their classmates are awaiting their return.
  • Soliciting gift certificates and other goods from local merchants to offer as incentives to students who improve attendance.

The results have been promising.  Stevens described how 16 students in a single housing complex in West Baltimore showed troublesome attendance in the first full month of school, missing 80 days collectively in September.  With steady intervention from the volunteer corps, the number of absences dropped to about 30 in October.

Overall, the more times volunteers are in touch, the more likely the child is to return to school.  This sort of improvement is good for not only the students.  “It’s very rewarding for the volunteers,” Stevens says.  “They’re thinking, ‘I’m making a difference.’  And the parents feel like there is someone out there who cares and who is willing to help them.”

To recruit volunteers, Stevens says she and her staff visit local churches and nonprofit groups.  They offer a range of options:  some choose to write letters from home, while other sign up for weekly visits or daily calls.  Once they commit, the volunteers receiving training about absenteeism, the school district’s policies, and the neighborhood dynamics.  All volunteers agree to background checks and fingerprinting, and they sign a confidentiality agreement ensuring they don’t share information on attendance or family problems that they learn about.

The program, funded by the Abell Foundation and housed in the city schools Office of Engagement, aims to reduce chronic absenteeism by 20 percent in the neighborhoods where it operates.  “Chronic absenteeism is the silent dream killer,” Stevens says.  “We have to do whatever we have to do to break the cycle of absenteeism so that our kids can succeed, not only in school, but in life.”

Revised December 2011