Kindergarten attendance is underrated

From California to Florida’s Suncoast region, state and county data on school attendance has found that, in general, kindergartners are more likely to be absent from school than students in any other grade.  
Chronic absenteeism in the first year of school matters more than we think, says Hedy Chang, founder and director of Attendance Works, an initiative tackling the issue of chronic absenteeism in the nation’s schools. 

(Read a story about Sarasota's kindergarten attendance issues here.)

 Hedy Chang, founder and director of  attendance works .

Hedy Chang, founder and director of attendance works.

How does attendance fit into the academic achievement gap?

What we know is that kids who are chronically absent, especially in kindergarten, are much less likely to read by the end of third grade. If you can’t read by the end of third grade you can’t shift from learning to read, to reading to learn.

There is evidence that shows chronic absence in kindergarten has an impact later on in school. In Rhode Island they tracked kids from kindergarten through 7th grade and they found that kids who are chronically absent in kindergarten were less likely to have passing literacy scores and more likely to be suspended by the end of middle school. Chronic absence actually tends to improve in third grade, but if you’re showing up and now you’re three years behind and can’t keep up, that’s when you might start seeing kids acting out because they’re not engaged and don’t want anyone to know they don’t understand the material.

There are still lots of kids who are low income who get themselves to school, but being in poverty makes it more likely that you’ll encounter issues that’ll make it more challenging. We see chronic absence happening among our more vulnerable kids. They’re disproportionately affected early and less likely to have the resources to make up for that lost time. And so there starts an achievement gap. 

In your work you’ve highlighted that students in lower grades, particularly kindergartners, are more likely to be chronically absent than students in other grades. Were you surprised by that? What are some of the reasons why these younger students are more likely to be absent and some possible solutions? 

I started in 2006 trying to analyze what the size and scale of the issue is. As soon as I realized that people don’t track absences except for unexcused absences, it never surprised me that kindergartners are a little higher. There are lots of reasons for that; 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. This includes transportation issues and family health issues. Once you’re older and mom is sick you’re more likely to be able to get yourself to school.

It’s not like the younger kids are skipping school and not telling mom. You have kids who miss a lot for what are often understandable reasons even if they’re preventable. Family challenges are more likely to make it difficult for a parent to get a kid to school so it increases the chances that you’ll have unexcused absences. But there’s a difference between understandable and preventable. A child could be absent because a car broke down or a parent  got sick, but if you had a backup plan, if you had people you could call then it’s a preventable absence. If we created opportunities for families to meet each other and develop those strategies we could help prevent those absences. 

How much do societal and cultural perceptions about kindergarten affect attendance?

One of the challenges is that people don’t perceive missing in those early grades as being a big deal, but school has changed. Right now there’s a lot of literacy and a lot of learning that goes on in those early grades. Families need to know what goes on in the classroom. Not all families understand how literacy develops. It develops over time by being surrounded by a language rich learning environment. It’s cumulative. It’s like scaffolding. The research has shown that when families understand what kids are learning they are more likely to send their kids to school. So if you don’t realize that they're learning and you experience some challenge, then are you going to go the extra mile if you thought it might not matter?

This perception that kindergarten is not all that important and the fact that kindergartners are affected by what happens to them and their families is pretty universal across the country, but exactly how it plays out and how much it plays out – is the issue parents’ health, mold in households, lack of transportation? – how much that matters varies by school and community, so what you want to do is figure out how much chronic absence is a problem and where it’s high and talk to kids and families about what their challenges and barriers and what might help.