Fighting school absenteeism in Detroit with resources, relationship building and experiencesQ&A with Sharnese Marshall: Nonprofit Journal Project

The Konnection is a Detroit nonprofit empowering youth to improve school performance and attendance by partnering with middle and high schools in underserved communities. The organization provides resources like basic needs, after-school programming, mentoring, career exploration and travel opportunities. Sharnese Marshall is the CEO of the organization.

Briefly, what does The Konnection do?

We’re focusing on students who are chronically absent from school. Our mission is to inspire youth to broaden their horizons through positive relationships and healthy connections. We partner with low-performing schools in Detroit. Right now we’re at Durfee Elementary-Middle School and Central High School. We provide the school with different programs and resources.
What was going on with students in Detroit that inspired you to start your organization?

One of the issues that we noticed was chronic absenteeism. Detroit is one of the leading cities in the entire nation with a high chronic absenteeism rate. The community that we work in currently is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in Detroit where chronic absenteeism is an issue.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as students missing 10% or more of the school year. In the 2021-2022 school year, 94% of Durfee Elementary-Middle School students were chronically absent. Last year that number dropped to 82% which is still very high and alarming. The more school days the students are missing, the further behind they fall in their studies. This could be because of no reliable transportation or lack of basic human resources like clothes, food, running water, or their utilities like electricity and gas are shut off. Health issues are also a factor. This drives a lot of students to not complete high school, which has long-term effects.

We’re really trying to get kids connected and keeping them connected to school at a younger age so that in the long term they are able to graduate from high school and find post-secondary opportunities, whether that’s college or a skilled trade. Making sure these kids don’t fall into poverty or go to jail or get on drugs because students who don’t graduate high school, their chances of being on drugs, being in jail, or living in poverty increase.

What are some of the challenges the youth of Detroit are facing in education?

Students are faced with lots of challenges as it relates to education. Students, especially in urban communities, face a severe lack of resources needed to be educated properly like school books, materials, technology and enriching after-school programs. The lack of quality teachers is also a challenge because of limited funding for schools in urban communities. You have people who are just placeholders, for example, substitute teachers for the entire year. Being chronically absent causes students to fall behind academically making it harder to stay on track to graduate from high school. 

What ways you keep kids interested in school and learning?

Our organization runs three different programs. The way our programs started is we asked students in Detroit, “If you could create any program that would help you stay more connected in school what would those programs look like?” The top three answers were resources, relationships, along with fun and exciting experiences and that's what we based our programs on.

How does the Konnection Kloset serve students?

The Konnection Kloset is an underutilized space within a school that is transformed into a resource room for students to come and get items they need throughout the year. From hygiene items and school supplies to clothes and food. It’s absolutely free to the students.

We have senior citizens serving in the closet, so seniors from the community can help create intergenerational programming and relationships. It also allows the seniors to get out of their homes or isolated situations. Last year, we were able to distribute 1,800 resources in the closet and served over 200 students.

Konnection Klub is an after-school program for middle school students that runs from October through May. What services are offered through this program?

The program provides students with mentoring, tutoring and career pathways. Every six weeks the career pathway changes, so the students are learning hands-on what a career looks like. They are doing hands-on projects and field trips. Last year we did STEM, culinary arts, music and entrepreneurship. We keep these clubs very small, about 20 students in each school. A lot of students don’t have intimacy anywhere else due to being in large families or they may be in classrooms where there are 30 students, so they don’t get the one-on-one or intentional support they need.

We also take those students on an out-of-state travel experience at the end of the school year. Students who have improved their academics and attendance earn an all-expense paid travel experience. This summer we went to Atlanta, Georgia, where the students got to go on an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) college tour at Morehouse College and Spelman College, and visited the Coca-Cola factory, the MLK National Park and Six Flags.

What is Konnection Kudos about?

Konnection Kudos is a school-wide initiative where students are competing to see who can achieve the highest attendance. At the end of each quarter, we bring in a celebration to honor those students who improved their attendance. We do a small ceremony where we give gold medals and certificates for each child and then it turns into a huge party. We have bounce houses, face painters, caricature artists,  and video game trucks. Last year, Chick-fil-A sponsored the food. For many of them, this is the first time they are able to try Chick-fil-A. We try to keep it fun and lively because it creates a cool culture within their school.

There’s also our annual back-to-school clap on the first day of school. We recruited over 100 volunteers to come and clap the kids in. We have a DJ and Pistons’ mascot Hooper to hype the kids up for a good school year.

Why is it important to keep children engaged with learning?

Students who are chronically absent are more likely to become high school dropouts which are linked to poor outcomes later in life, from poverty and diminished health to involvement in the criminal justice system and drug usage. It's important that we keep our kids connected to school to give them a better chance of a quality life in the future. Staying connected to school will also allow them to break generational cycles of unemployment, poverty and mental health issues.

How will these programs impact the future of Detroit?

The Konnection's programs will help develop the next generation of leaders right here in Detroit. Our programs will help move the needle on student chronic absenteeism, which will lead to higher graduation rates in Detroit. Increasing student achievement will contribute to an overall financially healthier city and economy.

Do you have any upcoming events with the organization?

We are renovating our Konnection closet at Central High School right now, partnering with Parini Design and EITI, a construction training program in Detroit. Then, we will partner with them again to open a new closet at Durfee Elementary-Middle School.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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