Reducing high levels of chronic absence requires a community-wide approach involving local businesses, health care providers, community organizations, local philanthropy and more. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) has help from a dream team to reduce chronic absence in its public schools—The Cleveland Browns.
The CMSD had a student chronic absence rate of 42 percent when Cleveland Browns owner, Dee Haslam, met with local civic leaders to find out how the Foundation could support community programs. Dee and Jimmy Haslam have always been passionate about education and have been active in supporting quality education programs for many years, Dee Haslam says.
CMSD Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Eric Gordon, told the Haslam’s about the district’s focus on improving attendance. Today, the Cleveland Browns Foundation (Foundation) is the lead partner in CMSD’s ongoing “Get 2 School. You Can Make It!” attendance campaign, a community-wide effort involving billboards, yard signs, school posters, parent engagement coffees and attendance celebrations. A volunteer phone bank, staffed by parents, teachers, school board members and bus drivers made 16,000 calls to family homes in 2015. Browns players are recording phone calls, videos and visiting schools to bring home the message that being in school every day matters for student achievement. The Cleveland Browns also provide student incentives throughout the year for improved attendance such as student on-field recognition during game days, tickets, special Training Camp invitations and autographed memorabilia. Watch this PBS New Hour video about the campaign.
“Get 2 School. You Can Make It!” has seen very positive results. Launched in 2015, the campaign has helped CMSD raise average attendance to 91 percent, and cut chronic absenteeism down to 30 percent in the 2016-17 school year
When CMSD’s CEO Gordon told the Haslam’s that among the top barriers keeping their kids from school were lack of appropriate uniforms and transportation challenges, the Cleveland Browns were clear about its next steps.
Cleveland is an all-uniform school district, but some families can only afford to buy one full uniform set for their child. Many students don’t want to attend in dirty or ill-fitting uniforms. “That’s why purchasing uniforms and clothes for kids came into the picture,” Dee Haslam says.
The Foundation partnered with Shoes and Clothes for Kids (SC4K), a nonprofit dedicated to improving elementary school attendance by eliminating lack of clothing and school supplies as barriers. Together with the district and the Foundation, SC4K launched the “Special Teams Package” program with packages consisting of three full sets of uniforms, one casual outfit, underwear, socks, shoe gift card and school supplies. In its first year the program distributed packages to 2,000 students identified by the district based on need. Now going into its third year, the Foundation has funded 6,000 uniform packages for CMSD students.
The program has had positive results: The district data shows that attendance increased as much as 24 percent during the 30 days after families received the uniform packages. “The uniform program is successful because of the incredible partners at the table, and everyone committed to its success owns a piece of it—even families. For example, caregivers must speak with school staff and sign a card pledging to support their child’s attendance before they receive a uniform package. This opens the door to developing relationships with families,” says Renee Harvey, Vice President of the Cleveland Browns Foundation. Watch this video of Cleveland Browns players visiting a CMSD school to deliver uniform packages.
Listening to the Community
A key to the Foundation’s success with reducing absenteeism in Cleveland was listening to the community leaders to discover what was needed before making decisions about what to invest in, says Dee Haslam. “We really fell into it in a good way. You don’t go into a community and think you know everything. We needed to understand their needs and ensure anything we did could make an impact.”
“The district has been a tremendous partner, helping us to understand this issue every step of the way and holding themselves accountable by setting an attendance goal each year,” she adds.
Taking steps to reduce chronic absenteeism aligns with the Foundation’s goals to keep kids in school every day and improve education in Northeast Ohio. The team has refurbished football fields at seven area high schools with attendance in-mind because students who participate in sports are less likely to be absent.
The programs targeting chronic absence that help families can be relatively straight forward, and the results are measurable “In the last few years it has become very important to Jimmy and me to focus our giving in a way that allows us to see some results to ensure we are making a true impact on the community,” Dee Haslam says.
The Foundation collaborated with the logistics department at Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee to help address a second root cause for absenteeism in the district: improved, efficient and safe transportation for all students. The study reviewed route planning and transportation of students as it relates to issues of school attendance. The Foundation is currently working with the district on next steps.
“Our entire organization is working on this, and everybody in our building understands that school attendance is our focus within education. I think people can make a difference in school attendance, if you just look at your schools, listen to the community and analyze student attendance patterns in order to identify the barriers and work on solutions to address those,” Dee Haslam adds.