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Where There are Gaps in Education, Nonprofits are There to Advocate

A mentor looks at a student’s race car at a STEM event put on by project partner Breakthrough Sacramento. Photo by Emily Rodriguez


We shine the spotlight on some of the many Community Initiatives project partners that make a difference in children’s daily lives on a national, state, local and school level.


Many large school systems and government bodies with limited capacity look at a young person’s academic success through a binary lens: students are either good or bad. The grey areas of a child’s experience go unnoticed and unaddressed.

These grey areas extend beyond the classroom. Fortunately, programs outside of the traditional schools’ systems can help. In this effort, many of our project partners are leading the way. 

“Nonprofits can innovate and iterate faster than a school system,” says Heidi Hernandez Gatty, Vice President of Community Initiatives’ Client Services and an acting Governing Board Member for the Walnut Creek School District. “More often than not, school budgets are so tight, there’s no money to test new ideas and approaches.”

This school year, children around the country experience an achievement gap exacerbated by entering the classrooms without their basic needs fulfilled. More than one-third of Community Initiatives’ 90-plus fiscally sponsored projects support these children and their families with access to food, housing, healthcare services, supplies or a reliable group of peers. 

Our projects also take on the important role of speaking on behalf of children. 

“Kids can’t advocate for themselves,” says Julia Hohner, Communications and Development Director for Groundwork Ohio, a Community Initiatives project partner. “They don’t have super PACs or roles in government. Advocacy groups try to fill the gaps as much as we can to improve outcomes for kids, to better support families.”

Groundwork Ohio educates Ohio’s key decision makers about the importance of quality, early learning and healthy development from prenatal care to children up to the age of 5. 

“Nonprofits provide a good, nonpartisan, impartial force and holds an important role in holding institutions accountable to outcomes, to what they said they’re going to do,” Hohner says. “We are able to share data that stakeholders otherwise wouldn’t be able to see — to tell a clear story of how our state’s most at-risk children are faring.”

Groundwork wants policy makers and representatives to understand and fight for more accessibility to early childcare.

“[Groundwork Ohio and other advocacy groups’] only motivation is to improve outcomes for kids,” Hohner says. “We don’t get caught up in politics or bureaucracy. We don’t profit financially from investments in early learning. We’re an objective voice for Ohio’s young children.”

Getting Students in the Classroom 

Attendance in a productive classroom environment is fundamental to every student’s success. School attendance is an indicator of how that student’s community, faculty, and family are engaging a child in their education. 

Hedy Chang, the executive director of Community Initiatives’ partner project Attendance Works, started a seminal 2008 research paper by stating the obvious: “At the core of school improvement and education reform is an assumption so widely understood that it is rarely invoked: Students have to be present and engaged in order to learn.”

Attendance Works was founded in the wake of this 2008 research paper. Their mission is to advance student success and help close equity gaps by reducing chronic absence. 

Chang, along with Mariajosé Romero, PhD., found that children living in poverty were four times more likely to be chronically absent than their more affluent peers. They went on to give recommendations on the importance of tracking thousands of kids who were chronically absent, or missing more than 10 percent of the school year. 

Ten years later, the federal government is now reporting on the metric. There were more than 8 million students, or 16 percent of children in schools across America, chronically absent in the 2015 to 2016 school year.

Measuring chronic absenteeism is just the first step to improving attendance. Each state, city and school has to meet students where they are. When schools in the District of Philadelphia sent postcards to guardians that encouraged them to improve their attendance, it reduced absences by 2.4 percent.

Traditionally, education systems focus on penalizing students for not conforming to established codes of behavior like attendance. 

Community Initiatives’ project partner One Day at a Time (ODAT) says that the education system tends to blame parents for absenteeism.  

“We blame parents without always thinking about what they’re going through,” says Johnny Rodriguez, Executive Director and founder of ODAT. “Some of them lack transportation to get kids to school. Or they’re working multiple jobs and can’t get there in time. They may have four or five other kids they need to drop off, but kids get held accountable. So, how do we help kids address these things and advocate for themselves?”

Mentoring Children in Need of Extra Support

ODAT is a youth mentorship and development program serving Contra Costa and San Joaquin Counties. They offer ground-level advocacy for children. They often act as a liaison between schools, children, family and their communities. ODAT also works directly with schools and other programs to offer safe environments and relationships to children. 

For Rodriguez, the work is personal. He and his team of mentors are a product of some of the same disadvantages and adversities facing his program’s participants. In fact, 98 percent of the mentors at ODAT went through the program themselves. 

The ODAT team challenges youth by putting them into positions of leadership and gives them responsibility for their communities. This is an effort to build up their resilience and confidence or “la confianza” as Rodriguez says, meaning confidence, trust, reliance, faith, reliability and beliefs.

“I think if you use trauma the right way, you can learn to embrace it and help others with compassion,” Rodriguez says. “For us, what we do is we bring a sense of consistency for kids. We’re always there. Not just after school, but all the time. We’re there to check in on their attendance, their homework; we’re entrenched in their lives.” 

He says that traditional education systems measure a child’s success based on how well they do in limited educational settings that emphasize test scores and formal education. 

“We want to inspire kids on the importance of education, but not every kid needs to go to college,” Rodriguez says. “They’re thinking about how to make a career and be able to manage a family. Society pushes higher education so hard that it’s very challenging to these kids. You can go into the trades and make a very good living, too.” 

Solutions-oriented Advocacy for Children

Sometimes the best advocacy work for children is simply listening to them.

“I don’t give up on anybody,” Rodriguez says. “You also have to have the understanding that you’re not going to be able to help everybody. Sometimes you have to just be honest and say: ‘I’ve never been through that traumatic event, I don’t completely understand.’ We have to encourage young people to speak up for themselves. Then, we need to sit back and let youth be part of the decision making process.”

In a set of guidelines by Attendance Works and FutureEd, out of Georgetown University, they state that “missing school has long been a cause for blame and punishment — directed at either the students or parents — for failing to comply with student rules. That has led to punitive approaches ranging from suspensions to jail time that have shown limited success in curbing absenteeism.”

Based on qualitative and quantitative data that is now available, they lay out recommendations to curb absenteeism. It starts with setting consistent, nationwide standards on what defines a day of school, what defines an absence and who a student is. Then, they recommend supporting data collection and monitoring it with established auditing systems. Finally, making the data public, then training faculty and staff on how to record and use the data. 

Groundwork Ohio lays out benefits for the state when investments are made in early childcare.  Using data and findings gathered by The Urban Institute, Groundwork sites that expanding child care subsidies from the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) can lead to overall better economic and social health for the state of Ohio.

“It’s hard to convince people to really double down and invest in things that have long term investments because we have term-limited representatives,” Hohner says. 

Most recently, the advocacy group worked with Ohio’s newly appointed governor, Gov. Mike Dewine and members of the General Assembly, to include some critical investments in young children in the fiscal year 2020-2021 budget.

If Ohio were to expand eligibility to child care subsidies from families making 130 percent of the federal poverty rate to 150 percent, there would be a 13 percent return on investment for the state, which is about “the highest return you can get,” according to Hohner. And, roughly 12,100 children could be lifted out of poverty. These advancements are mostly due to the 3,900 more women who would be able to enter the workplace and contribute taxes.  

One out of five children under the age of 18 in the US are living under the federal poverty limit, according to the 2017 American Community Survey (ACS). In 2017, the federal poverty limit for a household of two was an annual income of $15,877, according to the Census Bureau. For a family of four, it was $25,094. 

In Ohio, more than 26 percent of children under the age of 5 live in poverty. In Ohio’s Appalachian region, an extremely rural part of the 

state, more than 30 percent of children under the age of 5 live in poverty. And, only about 50 percent of those children ages 0 to 4 are eligible for access to publicly-funded early childhood education. 

“School is a community,” Hernandez Gatty says. “If you’re a parent having a hard time, let the community know — if something is going sideways, we’re here to support the student, your family.”

The range of children’s needs is quite wide and sometimes parents are scared to reach out when they need help.

“[The school] community is different than other kinds of community,” Hernandez Gatty, Community Initiatives’ VP of Client Services says. “Personally, I think it’s critically important to students because the school community is the template for how you look at community in the future. It’s the first place you really step out of your house. So, when you look to build community in the future, you look at that template. If your school has a range of ideas, creeds, races then you imagine all community to look like that.”


Natalie Yemenidjian, Communications Manager,