Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Recent research points to troubling absenteeism in the early grades; and a new report from Chicago looks at the specific problem of preschool absenteeism.

As the report – “Preschool Attendance in Chicago Public Schools: Relationships with Learning Outcomes and Reasons for Absences” – says, “Significant attention is currently focused on ensuring that children are enrolled in preschool. However, regular attendance is also critically important. Children with better preschool attendance have higher kindergarten readiness scores; this is especially true for students entering with low skills.” (Of course, preschool is still voluntary – state laws do not require children to attend.)

Unfortunately though, many children who are enrolled in programs are “chronically absent.” Children with numerous absences often miss preschool for a variety of reasons, including health-related issues and “a range of logistical obstacles” that families face “in getting their children to preschool every day.”

The report was released by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research in collaboration with the Office of Early Childhood Education at the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

“We studied preschool students served by CPS between 2008-09 and 2011-12 in four school-based preschool programs: Child-Parent Centers, Head Start, Preschool for All, and tuition based; the study does not include community partnership preschool programs, for which data are unavailable,” the report explains.

Key Findings in Chicago

The report defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of school days for excused or unexcused reasons. By comparison, truancy rates only reflect unexcused absences. Communities that only focus on unexcused absences may miss larger attendance problems. The report’s key findings show that missing preschool erodes skills and reflects families’ challenges. Among these findings:

– “Preschool students miss a lot of school: Almost half of three-year-olds and more than one-third of four-year-olds are chronically absent from preschool.”

– “African American children are almost twice as likely to be chronically absent as other students.”

– “African American and Latino students are sick more often than white students, and African American families face many more logistical obstacles.”

– “Students who miss more preschool end the year with lower skills; this relationship is strongest for students with low incoming skills.”

– “Students who are chronically absent in preschool are five times more likely to be chronically absent in second grade.”

– “The more years students are chronically absent over the early grades, the lower their reading scores are at the end of second grade.”

– “Health is the primary reason children miss preschool; a range of logistical obstacles are secondary.”

– “Particular family circumstances are related to higher absences for children.” These circumstances include being in single-parent family; having parents who are younger or in poor health; and relying on public transportation to get to school.

– “School culture is also related to preschool attendance.” Attendance is higher at schools that are safer, have high parent involvement, and where there is trust between parents and teachers.

The report concludes, “The reasons preschool children miss so much school are connected to a number of different social issues, including poverty, access to quality health care, transportation problems, and access to child care.”

Noting that schools cannot solve these problems on their own, the report calls for forming school-community partnerships with community health organizations, local churches and youth organizations. These partnerships could yield customized, “student by student, family by family” approaches that would meet the varying needs of individual families and communities.

Preschool is a good place to launch such efforts, the report says, because “The pre-existing emphasis on family involvement in preschool provides an opportunity for teachers to build relationships with parents of chronically absent students to understand the specific reasons why some students miss so much school. Beginning this process in the earliest of years has the potential to redirect children onto pathway towards ongoing educational success.”

A National Look

Absenteeism has also drawn national attention.

In 2007, the National Center for Children in Poverty, issued a report called “A National Portrait of Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades.” Among the troubling statistics: “Over 11% of kindergartners, almost 9% of first graders, 6% of third graders, and 5% of fifth graders were chronic absentees: they missed at least 18 days or more of the school year.”

This month, Early Ed Watch, a New America Foundation blog, reports that “This month is labeled the first-ever ‘Attendance Awareness Month’ by the advocacy group Attendance Works, and there is plenty to which we ought to be paying attention.”

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and Attendance Works, are calling on superintendents to lead the effort to improve attendance in their communities.

On a national policy level, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading has also sounded alarms about absenteeism, noting:

– “One in 10 kindergarten students miss nearly a month of school every year. In some districts, it runs as high as one in three.”

– “Kindergarteners who miss 10 percent of school days have lower academic performance when they reach first grade.”

– “Among children from low-income families, who lack the resources to make up lost time, chronic absence in kindergarten translated into lower fifth grade achievement.

High-quality early education programs can have a tremendous impact on children’s learning and development – so let’s first ensure that children enroll and attend their programs regularly. School-community partnerships that address attendance can help tackle this important issue.