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Chronic Absenteeism Challenges D.C. Public Schools' Preschool Program

About 1 in 4 preschoolers attending Title I schools in the District of Columbia missed 10 percent or more of 2013-14 school year, according to research released today from the Washington-based Urban Institute that was conducted at the request of the school system's early childhood education office. 

The children who missed the most preschool were the ones experts believe to be most in need of the boost that a high-quality early-childhood program provides—for example, children with disabilities, homeless children and children whose families were on welfare.

DCPS Head Start attendance.JPGSatisfactory attendance is defined as missing fewer than 5 percent of enrollment days; at-risk children miss 5 to less than 10 percent percent of enrolled days; chronic absenteeism is 10 to less than 20 percent days missed, and severely chronic absenteeism is more than 20 percent of school days missed. Full-time preschool is D.C. is 180 days. 

Even missing one day every two weeks adds up to around 18 days, or close to a month's worth of classes, said Michael Katz, a research associate focusing on early-childhood programs for the Urban Institute, and one of the lead authors on the report "Insights Into Absenteeism in DCPS Early Childhood Program."  That report was released at the same time as "Absenteeism in DCPS Early Childhood Program," which provides a closer look at the numbers and statistics.

The district's early childhood office is tackling the attendance problem in several ways, said Deborah Paratore, the director of Head Start operations for DC Public Schools. They include incentive programs for perfect attendance, parent appreciation nights, workshops on the importance of preschool attendance, and developing followup plans with families. 

"We really work together with the schools so we're not just sending out robocalls to the parents or leaving notes in the child's backpack," she said. The system requested the Urban Institute's input as part of a shift away from a focus on excused vs. unexcused absences, Paratore said. Whether an absence was excused or not, it all adds up to instructional time missed. 

DCPS combines local funding with federal Head Start dollars to create a "whole-school" Head Start program that enrolls all of the children in a Title I school's boundaries. About 5,000 children are served through this whole-school model, and those children were the focus of the Urban Institute report.

The researchers found that children were more likely to be absent on a Monday or Friday, on half days, and also in January (the onset of winter weather) and June (the end of the Head Start year.) 

Preschoolers who are chronically absent also become elementary students who are chronically absent and educationally delayed, based on similar research in other cities, the study noted. For example, in Chicago, children who missed a lot of preschool showed lower scores on the school district's kindergarten readiness assessment. But in some ways, DC is doing better than other large cities: Chicago had a chronic absentee rate of 36 percent in 2010-11, and New York's prekindergarten absentee rate was 49 percent, according to studies of those cities' early-childhood programs, the report said.

The Urban Institute's suggestions for tackling preschool absenteeism could be imported into other preschool programs. In addition to educating parents, preschool programs can also work to connect families with social services, create schools that are welcoming places for parents, and use data carefully to track student attendance and create triggers that will prompt immediate intervention, such as three absences within the first 25 days of school, the report says.

This work would serve to move preschool absenteeism away from something to punish or merely overlook, Katz said. "You need people bought into the fact that attendance at pre-K really is important." 

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