The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 27, 2015

Why preventing absenteeism in prekindergarten is so important

In recent years, some school districts around the country have started moving away from focusing on truancy (unexcused absences) toward reducing absenteeism (excused and unexcused absences), including in the early grades. This focus makes sense, as children can’t learn if they aren’t at school, regardless of the reason. It also is backed up by research exposing how often students are absent in early grades and how much early absenteeism can affect future attendance patterns, educational outcomes, and drop-out rates, especially for poor children

While much of the effort to reduce absenteeism has been focused on elementary schools, a few forward-thinking school systems—including Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, and most recently, the District of Columbia—have begun collaborating with researchers to improve prekindergarten attendance. These school systems recognize that the best time to instill the habit of attendance is at the beginning of a child’s school experience and that the effectiveness of early childhood interventions will be limited if children aren’t attending their programs.

Two reports being released today shed more light on the problem of absenteeism in DC Public Schools (DCPS) early childhood program, which serves low-income 3- and 4-year-olds through a Head Start-prekindergarten model. Both reports—“Absenteeism in DC Public Schools Early Childhood Program: An Update for School Year 2013–2014” by Lisa Dubay and Nikhil Holla and “Insights into Absenteeism in DCPS Early Childhood Program: Contributing Factors and Promising Strategies” by Michael Katz, Gina Adams, and Martha Johnson—underscore the importance and severity of chronic absenteeism even in the early years, the complexity of the contributing factors, the progress that can be made if school systems address this problem early, and the rich array of strategies that can be deployed.

Here are five key findings from the reports:

Photo: Monkey Business Images/ Shutterstock

  1. 1 out of 4 students in DCPS’s early childhood Head Start program missed at least 10 percent of school days. About 20 percent of Head Start students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of days they were enrolled in school. Another 7 percent were severely chronically absent, meaning they missed 20 percent or more of school days. While high, these rates are lower than comparable estimates from other districts that have estimated absenteeism rates for children in school-based preK, including in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York.

  2. Children from families with higher needs, who could benefit most from early intervention programs, had the highest rates of absenteeism. Moreover, absenteeism was highest for children of some of the highest-need families. For example, 46 percent of children from homeless families, 36 percent of children from families participating in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and 34 percent of children with developmental delays missed 10 percent or more of the days they were enrolled in school.
  3. Children may be absent frequently because of personal, school, or community factors. In DC, as in other districts, many contributing factors can lead to high absence rates, including family- and child-level factors such as logistical problems, major family challenges, and prioritization of attendance; school- and district-level factors such as school climate and internal processes for attendance policies and follow up; and community-level factors such as neighborhood safety and violence and lack of communication between homeless shelters and schools. 
  4. By proactively working to increase attendance, DCPS has been able to reduce absenteeism rates in early childhood programs. While these absenteeism figures are daunting, the Head Start family services team and DCPS early education programs have been proactively working to increase attendance. And these efforts are paying off: between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, the share of students with satisfactory attendance increased from 36 to 44 percent. This was accomplished partly by changing the number of absences that triggered family services team members to reach out to families from three consecutive days to three days over the course of the school year. 
  5. A rich array of strategies and lessons learned are available from other districts across the country that have worked to address absenteeism. Limiting absenteeism is a complex and often taxing job and there is much more to be done. The experiences of administrators in other districts and education and attendance experts offer other avenues that the DCPS Early Childhood Education Division could explore to improve pre-K attendance. These include creating effective internal systems for collecting and analyzing data and tracking attendance patterns; helping parents understand the importance of prekindergarten, attendance, and keeping track of attendance (e.g., through innovative events, materials and tracking tools, and careful messaging); strengthening attendance-related activities focused on parents and children; developing school-wide strategies, internal processes, and support structures to support attendance; and working to address common causes of absenteeism and larger barriers that can cause absenteeism for families facing larger challenges. 

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