Cities are pouring millions of dollars into early-education programs, often aimed at their neediest young children. But many of those children aren’t showing up.
In 2013-14, a quarter of the preschoolers from low-income families enrolled in the District of Columbia’s preschool program missed more than 10 percent of the preschool year,. That’s equivalent to about a month’s worth of classes.
A similar pattern has been seen in Chicago, where researchers found that in 2011-12, nearly a third of the 4-year-olds in the city’s school-based preschools missed 10 percent of school days, the threshold for being considered chronically absent. And in New York City, which this school year rolled out an ambitious expansion of its pre-K program, the number of preschoolers absent more than 10 percent of the school year approached 50 percent in 2012-13.
As policymakers push to expand access to high-quality early education, those who work with student attendance urge equal attention to ensuring the children most likely to benefit from preschool actually show up regularly enough to do so.
Children aren’t required to attend pre-K, so schools and social service organizations do not have a legal tool to compel parents to send their children regularly and on time, as they do for K-12. But even if such tools existed, punishing parents is the wrong method to address the absentee problem, say experts in early childhood and school attendance.
A better approach is to consider preschool absences as an early-warning sign for potential future struggles, they say. Research has shown that chronically absent preschoolers often go on to become chronically absent elementary school students who lag behind their peers academically.
Schools and social service agencies are trying different approaches aimed at changing a bad pattern.
In Baltimore, for example, the department of social services is given a list of chronically absent preschoolers, which it matches with its own data on city ZIP codes that produce a high number of foster-care placements.
Social workers then visit about 50 families a month to offer support, said Molly McGrath Tierney, the city’s director of social services. Often, they find that children are kept home because they are sick with asthma, or that the family has moved out of a given school’s attendance zone, lacks transportation, and does not know that the children are allowed to attend the school in their new neighborhood without penalty.
Those two problems account for about two-thirds of the children who are chronically absent from preschool in the city, Ms. Tierney said. Another third of children stay home for other reasons that can be more challenging to address, such as a child’s behavior problems. In those cases, she said, at least the city knows about the challenges and can try to work out a solution.
Ms. Tierney said the social worker outreach program, in place for two years, is part of a number of efforts to reduce the city’s foster-care rolls.
Many school districts have only recently created data systems that allow them to track the attendance of preschool children. Confronted with high rates of chronic absenteeism, several have launched programs to address the issue.
Baltimore: The city’s department of social services sends social workers to the homes of children who are chronically absent from preschool, to help those families overcome challenges such as transportation or poor child health.
Chicago: The Chicago: Ready to Learn! initiative looked at a number of different factors, including placement of preschool programs to ensure transportation would not be a barrier.
District of Columbia: Starting in 2012, the city started offering family support from social workers after a child missed three total days of schools. Previously, the trigger was three consecutive days.
New York: Former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg created a citywide task force to address chronic absenteeism and truancy. The initiative created “Success Mentors” who worked with families to combat absenteeism.
Tulsa, Okla.: Early-education programs run by CAP Tulsa post attendance averages in the schools for parents and teachers to see. The project also creates attendance plans for children who miss school 20 percent of the time, who miss more than 10 days in a single month, or who consistently arrive more than 15 minutes late.
Sources: Education Week; Attendance Works
“I’ll know it’s working when my child-protection line stops ringing,” she said. “We’re just going on the evidence and the belief that intervening early can turn a family around.”
The District of Columbia’s early-childhood office is tackling the attendance problem in several ways, said Deborah Paratore, the director of Head Start operations for the school system. They include incentive programs for perfect attendance, parent-appreciation nights, and workshops on the importance of preschool attendance.
“We really work together with the schools so we’re not just sending out robocalls to the parents or leaving notes in the child’s backpack,” Ms. Paratore said.
Elizabeth Mascitti-Miller, the chief officer for Chicago’s office of early-childhood education, said boosting attendance has been part of a citywide early-learning initiative. One important element has been ensuring that families have preschool programs close to them, to cut back on transportation woes. The city is also expanding its full-day preschool programs, which generally have better attendance.
“We also continue to educate our teachers about how to educate our families” on the importance of regular attendance, Ms. Mascitti-Miller said.
CAP Tulsa, an Oklahoma-based organization that runs a Head Start program as part of a comprehensive set of anti-poverty initiatives, started tracking preschool absences in 2009. Using a metric slightly different from those other studies, it found that 65 percent of the children were missing 15 percent or more of the school year, said Cindy Decker, the organization’s senior research associate for data and accountability.
As a result, CAP Tulsa launched a variety of programs aimed at moving those numbers. Parents are told about the importance of regular preschool attendance at several points, including during enrollment and orientation meetings. The teachers visit the families at home, and during those visits stress the importance of getting children to school regularly and on time. The families are encouraged to volunteer in the classroom and become connected to the program.
But CAP Tulsa’s experience shows how intractable the problem can be. Prompted by the recent report on the early-education program in the District of Columbia, Ms. Decker ran a new report to find out the Tulsa County program’s chronic-absence rate. She found that in 2013-14, about 40 percent of the program’s 4-year-olds missed 10 percent or more of the school year, a disheartening result when “the number of efforts that we have going toward talking to the parents and identifying problems is enormous.”
She hypothesized that the warm and welcoming atmosphere could actually be working against them, compared to preschool programs that are run out of local elementary schools.
“Does the family think of us differently?” she said, adding that parents may not take attendance as seriously in the Head Start program as they would in the elementary- school-run programs.
Measuring preschool absenteeism is a relatively new metric for many school systems, said Hedy Chang, the director of, a national initiative that works to promote the importance of regular school attendance.
Early-childhood classrooms have traditionally used attendance numbers as a driver of funding—a certain number of children attending each day means a certain amount of money for the program, Ms. Chang said. But that approach has not required districts to track how often each particular child attends. The school districts that have studied this issue most closely have data systems that are ahead of the curve compared to other jurisdictions, she said.
Also, attendance goals have often been measured in terms of “average daily attendance.” The federal Head Start preschool program, for example, requires its local programs to have an average daily attendance of 85 percent; falling below that threshold triggers a requirement that the program take a closer look at its attendance numbers. But a Head Start program that meets or even surpasses that requirement could still have a number of chronically absent children, Ms. Chang said.
Another stumbling block is that schools have often focused on whether an absence was excused or unexcused. A series of excused absences still represents a potential gap in a child’s preparation for kindergarten.
“When we focus on excused versus unexcused, we focus on the wrong thing— the validity of the excuse, not on the consequences of missing,” Ms. Chang said. “You have to help people understand the consequences of absences adding up.”
Parents may not perceive that absences that appear sporadic can still add up. Eighteen days, or nearly a month’s worth of classes, is the same as missing one day every two weeks over the course of a school year, said Michael Katz, a research associate focusing on early-childhood programs for the Urban Institute in Washington. He was one of the authors who worked on the District of Columbia’s chronic-preschool-absence study, which was initiated at the request of the school system.
Thefound that children in the program were more likely to be absent on a Monday or a Friday, on days when school was only open for half a day, and in January (one of the area’s coldest months) and June, which marks the end of the school year.
Caution for Policymakers
It’s also not always clear to parents why regular preschool attendance is important, research has found. Chronically absent preschoolers do attend school more often in kindergarten and later grades, studies show. However, they are more likely to miss school than their peers who attended preschool regularly.
Stacy Ehrlich, a senior research analyst for the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, was the lead author. In that study, Ms. Ehrlich said that interviews showed that parents whose children had the best attendance were those who were focused on preschool’s immediate benefits for their children. Children who attended less often had parents who considered education important, but talked more about future goals.
The issue of attendance and chronic absences should be an important issue for state and local policymakers, Ms. Ehrlich said.
“We’re focusing a lot of money and a lot of effort, and we’re trying to improve supports for pre-K educators, and I think that’s the right way to go. But those kids need to be there,” she said.
Coverage of more and better learning time is supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation at www.fordfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Districts Work With Families to Curb Pre-K Absenteeism