Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Chronic Absence and Kindergarten

obriena's picture

Chronic absenteeism is often thought of as a middle and high school issue. As children become responsible for getting themselves to school, those who are disengaged stop showing up.

But did you know that nationally, one in ten kindergarten and first grade students miss the equivalent of a month of school each year? In some districts, it is more than one in four. Why don’t we talk more about these shocking statistics?

Perhaps because we don’t know them. I had no idea that chronic absenteeism (when a child misses 10% or more of the school year) in the early grades was so common until a session last week at the Coalition for Community Schools’ 2012 National Forum, when Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, and representatives from school districts across the nation helped illuminate the scope of the problem.

I doubt I am alone in my ignorance on this issue. When data in Multnomah County (Oregon) showed that 20% of K-3 students are chronically absent – 28% of kindergarteners – stakeholders in both the schools and the community were shocked.

How could schools miss the fact that more than a quarter of their kindergarteners are chronically absent? It isn’t data they typically collect. Schools often track truancy…but that isn’t the same as chronic absenteeism. While the definition of truancy varies by state, it typically involves unexcused absences – children missing school when no adult has given permission. In the younger grades, a child who is absent often has an adult’s permission.

Schools also often track average daily attendance (ADA – the percent of students present on a given day). But even an ADA as high as 95% can mask chronic absenteeism, when it is the same few students missing school over and over.

Missing so much school so young can have dire consequences for children. Not surprisingly, chronic absence in kindergarten and first grade leads to lower performance in third grade, which is tied to decreased attendance in sixth and ninth grade and an increased risk of dropping out. Basically, there is a group of children that we lose in grades K and one because they don't come to school.

So how do you reduce chronic absenteeism in the early grades? Create a safe, supportive school environment with engaging classrooms. Educate parents about the importance of attendance. Pay ongoing attention to attendance data. Offer school-based health care so that children do not have to miss excessive school for routine medical care. Celebrate attendance. There are a number of steps any school or district can take to address the issue.

In getting started, one of the most important questions to answer is, why are students missing school? It can be hard to get parents to commit to attendance, particularly among migrant and other mobile populations. Other issues can impact attendance as well. If an early childhood center is located next door to an elementary school and lets out an hour earlier, parents might sign out their elementary child out then so that they do not have to go back again that day. If streets flood when it rains, children might not have a safe way to walk to school.

Once you know the common causes of absenteeism in your community, you can address them. But you have to look for them - and for data on the issue in general. If you don't, problems in this area might never come to light.