The United Way wants to help kids get to school every day and stay there.

To that end, the organization on Thursday announced a new fundraising initiative to address chronic absenteeism of students in Lincoln, a problem that creates a significant barrier to graduation.

Officials hope to raise $100,000 through an initiative called “Stable. Strong. Successful.” Money will go to agencies that work with schools where chronic absenteeism is a significant problem.

Students are considered chronically absent if they are gone at least 10% of the year. That’s at least 18 absences in a school year, or roughly two a month and the point at which their academics begin to slip, said Community Learning Center Director Nola Derby-Bennett.

About 12% of the students at Lincoln Public Schools — more than 5,000 — hit that threshold, she said.

Things often continue to go downhill for those students and absenteeism becomes a major contributor to the dropout rate.

Schools monitor attendance and meet with families to set up a plan to help kids get to school regularly, but some of the barriers students face are outside the scope of what schools can do, which is where social service agencies can help, Derby-Bennett said.

There are many reasons students don't come to or stay in school. Among them: transportation issues, needing to watch siblings while their parents work, mental health or substance abuse by students or their parents.

Betty Medinger, senior vice president of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, said it's important for the social service system to invest in helping families to care for their children before they’re abused or neglected and end up in foster care or therapy to deal with the trauma they’ve suffered.

About 75% of the substantiated child abuse reports in Nebraska end up being neglect cases, she said.

“If we don’t go further upstream in our work with children and families who are at risk we are constantly going to be in a situation of trying to pick up the pieces of things that have gone terribly wrong in the lives of children and families,” she said.

United Way changed its framework last year to focus on three pillars: education, income and health, said Linda Robinson Rutz, board president for United Way of Lincoln and Lancaster County. Under the education pillar, they adopted the LPS goal of raising the graduation rate to 90%.

As a team looked into how to contribute to that goal, the effect of chronic absenteeism became apparent, she said.

Officials will give money to agencies who can work with families in three schools, yet to be identified, where chronic absenteeism is a big problem, she said.

Katie McLeese Stephenson, executive director of HopeSpoke, said social service agencies play a vital role in helping kids stay in school.

“It takes all of us to help families with stable homes that are creating strong, stable families that are creating successful students, and that creates the future we want to see," she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.


Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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