SARASOTA — If you were absent to Sarah Mickley’s kindergarten class Wednesday, here’s some of what you missed: a lesson on words with silent “e’s” – cape, tape, lake — and another on tricky “y’s” that sound like “i’s.” There was math, of course, and show-and-tell, and a lesson on insects.
It was a good day; only one student didn’t show up. But not all days are like that in kindergarten classrooms across the county.
According to school district data, a higher percentage of kindergarten students were chronically absent last year than students in any other grade.
A student missing 21 or more days is considered chronically absent in Florida. In the 2015-2016 school year, 8 percent of Sarasota kindergartners were chronically absent — double the percentage of third graders who fell into that category last year. Kindergartners have topped the list consistently since at least 2013.
“It really matters because kindergarten is where they’re really learning to read rather than reading to learn,” said Mickley, a kindergarten teacher at Bay Haven School of Basics Plus for the past three years.
Those 21 days may not sound like a lot, but they make up over 11 percent of the average 180-day school year. Nationally, chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of the year.
More absences in the earlier grades is a common trend nationwide, says Chang. One in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students nationally are chronically absent, missing nearly a month of school, according to research from Attendance Works.
These early absences correlate with reading difficulties and poor attendance in later grades, researchers have found.
A 2011 California study concluded that only 17 percent of students who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were reading proficiently by the time they hit third grade. A Rhode Island study tied poor kindergarten attendance with middle school expulsions.
There are lots of reasons why kindergartners are so prone to attendance issues, says Chang: “Young kids can have real health issues, but also their ability to get to school is affected by their family’s ability to get to school.”
In Sarasota, a task force created two years ago has renewed the focus on attendance. The district has turned to data in order to better monitor students who are chronically absent, said Kristi Jarvis, assistant principal at Phillippi Shores Elementary and member of the task force.
"We're trying to get to the bottom of what's really going on – is it transportation, health, dental issues – so that we can offer support to families," Jarvis said.
Whatever the reason, teachers say it can really slow things down in the classroom. On days when absences are high, Mickley tries to avoid starting the class on a new concept.
The ripple effects extend far past kindergarten said Bernice Fuller, a truancy officer with Sarasota County schools for nearly 20 years. She says that attendance tends to improve as kids get older, but by then, they already have missed too much.
“Lets face it, it starts in kindergarten,” said Fuller. “If they don’t grasp those foundational concepts and then continue to miss each year, they just can’t catch up.”
Fuller’s job has her following up with students who frequently miss school. She makes calls and shows up on doorsteps. Sometimes the kindergarten parents don’t think it’s that big a deal. “It’s just kindergarten,” she hears every now and then. But she sees the effects among the older students who carry on the pattern of poor attendance.
“If you go back in their school history those kids have missed a lot of days every year starting when they first enter school,” said Fuller. Of the students she’s currently tracking in elementary, the one with the most absences has missed 34 days so far this year.
Fuller’s advice? If you can do anything to get your kids to school, do it.