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December 15, 2017

Pitt Community Gives to United Way in More Ways Than Campaign Donations

As Pitt’s United Way campaign pushes toward its financial goal, Pitt is helping United Way’s local chapter create new programs that make sure thousands of area children get the most out of school.

The Office of Child Development designed and piloted a vital component of Be There, a program of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania that encourages steady school attendance — a crucial factor in academic success. Members of the University community will soon be able to volunteer to aid another Be There component.

Be There was conceived in 2013 after Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services and Pittsburgh Public Schools found a third of district students were chronically absent (missing at least two days per month on average).

As Shauna McMillan, manager of programs for children and youth at United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, noted: “There’s a really strong link between students who are chronically absent and the likelihood of their dropping out.”

Pitt’s Office of Child Development was among local agencies recruited by the United Way to lead the charge toward reducing chronic school absences. The resulting program, Be There, is designed to raise awareness of the deleterious effects of chronic absence on students and to provide schools with best-practice interventions.

Today, students in 32 of the county’s 43 school districts are participating.

University Community ‘Doing the Work We Were Called to Do’

Be There’s top recommendation for schools is to implement the Buddy Project, which pairs each chronically absent child with a school staff person who can encourage regular attendance by greeting the child each morning and helping them to set and meet attendance goals.

“Most absent children feel like nobody wants them there,” McMillan said. The Buddy Project helps the children believe they have a champion in the school. Starting early in 2018, Pitt staff, faculty and students will be able to volunteer for that role with the Buddy Project.

Be There offers small grants for schools to implement the Buddy Project or other programs they may wish to start, such as awarding prizes for continuous attendance or holding parent breakfasts to encourage more attention to the issue. The Office of Child Development (OCD) not only funded expanded grants for Be There this year, it piloted a texting program based on a study by the University Center for Social and Urban Research that found students with unstable housing situations are more likely than other students to be chronically absent.

Parents in participating schools now can sign up to get texts from the local United Way chapter that show how often their children have been absent. Even more importantly, parents can text back to the United Way to receive help with transportation, housing needs and food access that may be standing in the way of better attendance. Pitt’s OCD provided sample texts and successful strategies for the texting program’s initial tests.

Overall, McMillan said, since 2013 Be There programs have aided 18,000 students. “We have seen reductions in Pittsburgh Public Schools absenteeism year after year,” she said.

Kathy W. Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement, knows how important such programs can be. Working recently with a Pittsburgh Public Schools committee, she heard first-hand from a group of students about difficulties in their educational experience.

“I was pretty devastated by what I heard,” Humphrey said. “If indeed we as a University can help make a difference in their lives, I think this is work we are called to do.”

She noted that early school absences have a ripple effect that can even determine whether students succeed in higher education: “If you have a good foundation, the reality is you will be better prepared to seek further education. If we don’t step in, some children might not have the opportunity.”

How to Give to the Pitt United Way Campaign

As of Dec. 14, Pitt’s United Way campaign for 2017 had received $596,000, bringing the University to 84 percent of its goal of raising $713,000.

To be part of the current campaign, please make a gift online via payroll deduction by December 21. Credit card and billed transactions can continue into January.

Giving is easy: Paycheck deductions of $2 or more per month, starting with an employee’s January 2018 pay, are available through the My Pitt Portal; just click on the “Donate to the United Way” link in the upper-right corner of the page. Direct your gift to an individual fund of your choice, listed on the Pitt campaign website, or to the Impact Fund, which targets local agencies serving people with the most critical and immediate needs.


Marty Levine,, 412-758-4859


Filed under: Feature,Volume 50 Issue 9

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