Improving Prekindergarten Attendance: School-Level Strategies for Messaging, Engaging Parents, and Responding to Absences in Four DC Public Schools

Research Report

Improving Prekindergarten Attendance: School-Level Strategies for Messaging, Engaging Parents, and Responding to Absences in Four DC Public Schools

Abstract

Absenteeism in prekindergarten has been linked to absenteeism and lower academic achievement in later grades. Additionally, children from low-income families are more likely to be chronically absent from prekindergarten, exacerbating later achievement gaps. Despite increased recognition of the importance of prekindergarten, few districts focus on tracking and improving prekindergarten attendance.
 

Over the past four years, the Early Childhood Education Division of District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) has partnered with the Urban Institute to study absenteeism in prekindergarten. DCPS schools follow strict laws and guidelines for K–12 attendance but have more leeway in how they track and manage prekindergarten attendance, which is noncompulsory. In this study, Urban researchers interviewed staff and parents at four schools that serve high-needs groups prone to chronic absenteeism but still have high attendance rates and strong attendance practices. Several common barriers and key strategies emerged.

 

Barriers to attendance

  • Child health was the top contributing factor to absenteeism.
  • Instability at home greatly affected attendance. Children of parents who were working regularly and could build drop-off and pick-up into their routines were more likely to have satisfactory attendance. If parents faced logistical barriers or transportation challenges, children were more likely to be chronically absent. Homelessness or poor parental health or mental health can also negatively affect prekindergarten attendance.
  • Parents’ views on the value of prekindergarten determined how much they valued attendance. Some parents viewed prekindergarten as the equivalent of child care and would drop their children off when it was convenient, leading to inconsistent attendance. These parents often lacked an understanding of the curriculum and the opportunities to develop social and academic skills their children might miss. Other parents did not fully grasp how many days their children had missed and how prekindergarten absenteeism can negatively affect future academic success. 

Strategies to curb absenteeism

  • Set clear, consistent, and tangible goals for attendance. Administrators in the four schools we studied had clearly communicated goals for prekindergarten attendance and made attendance a priority on par with instruction.
  • Integrate prekindergarten into the school’s larger operations, vision, and goals. These four schools viewed prekindergarten as an integral part of the school rather than a separate program. Attendance committees, for example, discussed prekindergarten attendance just as they would for any other grade. Including prekindergarten in larger school objectives helped underscore the importance of and the school’s commitment to early academics and attendance.
  • Clearly communicate attendance goals and policies with parents. Parent communication at the four schools we examined differed according to parent and school staff preferences. Some staff relied on face-to-face meetings; others primarily used apps and text messages. Teachers used these communication methods to set expectations about attendance, provide attendance updates and reminders, share information about the curriculum, inform parents of their child’s progress, and learn about the family’s needs. The common factor was that schools learned what worked best for parents and used that mode of communication to build a connection with the family.
  • Make parents partners. Because parents’ comfort with the school and the staff can be a determining factor in whether their children attend prekindergarten regularly, all four schools felt it was important to engage parents in a positive, proactive way. This means creating a warm environment at the school and building organic relationships through home visits or meetings at the school.
  • Build effective internal systems and practices to support attendance. Setting consistent attendance reporting times and standards for alerting parents helped schools track which children were at risk for absenteeism. Schools were also most successful when they found the right people to track and analyze attendance data and develop tailored absence follow-up plans.
  • Engage community partners in supporting attendance efforts. Community organizations and religious institutions can help parents manage the logistical challenges that pose barriers to attendance. Community partners can also provide incentives or help sponsor or host activities that celebrate good attendance or parent engagement. 

Cross-Center Initiative

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