Not long ago, I was talking about early learning with a cousin who teaches Pre-K here in Oklahoma. Our state’s publically funded Pre-K program, although universally available to children, is not mandatory. However, my cousin Jane said we still need to stress to parents that regular attendance for enrolled students is important, even if the program itself is voluntary. This is a familiar theme in my world; because attendance is something we are mindful of here at CAP Tulsa as well.
And we’re not alone in our concern, either. Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that preschool students do, in fact, miss a lot of school. Their recent report, Preschool Attendance in Chicago Public Schools, states almost half of three-year-olds and more than one-third of four-year-olds are chronically absent from school. To put Chicago’s rate of preschool absenteeism into perspective, only 11% of kindergartners across the country are chronically absent.
But what does chronically absent mean? And why is regular attendance important at such an early age?
“Chronic absenteeism,” for the purposes of the Chicago report, was defined as having an absence rate of 10% or higher. The “absence rate” is determined by taking the number of days a student missed school and dividing it by the total number of days he or she was enrolled. As they put it – if a typical student was enrolled for 150 days, he or she would be chronically absent if 15 or more days were missed over the course of the school year.
Researchers determined, among other things, that chronic absenteeism is higher among students who live in high-poverty areas. This is troubling because one of the motivations behind the push for early learning programs is to overcome the learning gap between children from low-income families and children from middle- to upper-income families. (See: Rally4Babies: Advocating for Early Learning).
The Chicago study shows students who miss more school have lower skills at the end of the year. For a student at age four, chronic absences had a negative impact on his or her Kindergarten readiness scores. This held true for scores in math, letter recognition and social-emotional development.
Furthermore, chronic absenteeism during a child’s early years can predict later problems. Chronically absent preschool students in this study were five time more likely to be chronically absent in the second grade. These trends impact a student’s learning, as students who had problems with absenteeism in their early years were more likely to need an intensive reading intervention by the second grade.
The next logical step is to determine why preschool students are absent from school. Perhaps not surprisingly, health is the primary reason. More than half of the days missed during the preschool study were reportedly due to a child being sick with the flu, a cold or some other illness.
However, 18% of missed days were caused by “a range of logistical obstacles for families,” including court appearances, sick family members, WIC visits or the fact that other siblings had a day off of school. Another obstacle was half-day programs that require pick-up and drop-off arrangements in the middle of the day, and also influenced parents’ perceptions regarding the importance of attendance.
Obviously, other circumstances play a large role in absenteeism. Single-parent households, parents with poor health, a reliance on public transportation and a lack of affordable medical care were contributing factors when researchers examined the cause of high absence rates. Parental belief in the importance of preschool attendance also played an important part in achieving satisfactory attendance.
One of the lessons we can draw from this study is that health is a huge factor in relation to attendance and it’s not just a child’s health but the parent’s health as well. This is one reason why our agency works to secure a medical home for families who indicate a need when enrolling their kids in our program. However, no school or Head Start program alone can address the comprehensive health needs of low-income families, and this is where Medicaid expansion could help educational outcomes. (For more information on uninsured children, click here.)
It is also important to help parents address obstacles such as transportation and scheduling, so preschool programs can support the development of regular attendance habits that influence academic success for years to come. As the authors of the study point out, schools alone may not be able to remove all the obstacles, but schools can build partnerships within a community to link parents with needed resources.
Finally, it is essential to speak with parents about the importance of regular attendance, even during their child’s preschool years. The report closes with the idea of capitalizing on preschool environments that foster strong parent involvement. When relationships between faculty and families are strong, a school can better understand the reasons behind a particular child’s absences and help parents overcome barriers and fully appreciate the importance of preschool education.