Ever since the Browns established a partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in 2015, Dee Haslam and the Cleveland Browns Foundation have prioritized eliminating chronic student absenteeism across Northeast Ohio.
One of the campaigns meant to focus solely on addressing student absenteeism is the "Get 2 School, Stay in the Game!" Network. Established in 2019 to improve the attendance rates across 14 school districts — which has since expanded to 16 districts — the initiative aims to break down several of the barriers that could keep students from regularly attending class.
Haslam has always been one of the leading spokespeople for those efforts, and she took the mic again Thursday at the "Power of Sports" Summit at Progressive Field to remark on the progress the initiative has made.
"We took a problem we saw, and we've figured out how to (address) it around the state and have even more people find out about it," Haslam said.
The "Get 2 School, Stay in the Game!" Network has already made a considerable footprint and will benefit 100,000 students in Ohio in the 2020-21 school year. That work has been possible thanks to partnerships with Proven Ground and the Ohio Department of Health, who were both represented on the panel discussion with Haslam.
Dave Hersh, Director, the Director for Proving Ground at the Center for Education Policy Research, Paolo DeMaria, the State Superintendent for the Ohio Department of Education and Lori Criss, the Director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services joined Haslam to discuss the progress the initiative has made and what work lies ahead in the future.
"The partnership has really been astonishing," Haslam said. "The people who have been involved in this partnership are much larger even to just us.
As 2021 NFL Draft festivities take place in Cleveland from Thursday through Saturday, the "Get 2 School, Stay in the Game!" initiative hopes to use the added platform to further push its goals and raise awareness for how to combat student absenteeism, which has become more prevalent for students and schools as they continue to navigate the learning difficulties throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remote learning further increased the need to secure students with proper technology and internet connection to complete class, but the barriers extend far beyond that. Teachers, superintendents and other school staff members have been encouraged by the initiative to find new ways to motivate kids to come to school and encourage parents to closely monitor their students' class participation.
One method Haslam discussed Thursday was by providing school uniforms to students who were short of full week's worth of clothes.
"In Cleveland, a lot of these kids don't even have enough school uniforms and clean uniforms, so the parents won't even send them to school," Haslam said. "We've partnered with 'Clothes for Kids' to get clean uniforms to the schools."
That simple solution, as well as ramping up efforts to provide students with internet access, was one reason why attendance numbers have begun to rise as planned. Over the last four years, the number of students who have missed 10 or more school days per year has decreased by 21 percent, said Eric Gordon, the CEO and Superintendent of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, who discussed the initiative's progress in a second panel discussion.
"We've known these things are real in our communities," Gordon said. "We knew that kids didn't have clothes. We knew these kids didn't have a polo, shirt, slacks, socks and shoes. We knew that East Cleveland and rural communities didn't have internet access, and that it was easy to look away. We're not looking away right now, and we have to keep people focused on creating a truly equitable Ohio and not letting them turn their eyes away."
The progress has been encouraging, but the battle isn't done. As districts continue to progress toward returning students back to in-person lessons, the need to push students for daily attendance will grow even more.
The first step toward ensuring that happens, though, is by pushing the word. That's why Haslam was speaking on part of the initiative again Thursday at the start of draft weekend, which has provided a prime window for improving the city of Cleveland.
"There's so much more to be done," Haslam said. "Getting the word out, though, is where everybody can help. I don't think all parents and families understand how important those (missed) days are. Messaging is critical, especially now.
"I have confidence in the work of the people that are involved that we're going to do a great job in Ohio, and that we're going to lead the nation in attacking chronic absenteeism. If we can do that, our graduation rates will go up, and we'll see a big difference in this state."