The findings from a new study of the district’s pioneering child-parent center program are striking, with daily attendance up and chronic absenteeism among preschoolers down as much as 40 percent in some schools.
Along with the positive findings, however, a question looms: Six of the centers that were located in schools that shut down this fall moved to welcoming schools, but it’s not clear how many of the preschoolers who were part of the study last year at those centers came back this fall.
Researchers, teachers and principals have wrapped up the first year of the federally funded study, which included 1,655 children (out of the 2,300 who received services through the center’s program).
Principal investigator Arthur Reynolds says the improved attendance figures are likely due to a combination of more full-day preschool classrooms coupled with parent engagement strategies that are part of the child-parent center model. The model, considered a prime example of high-quality early learning, once flourished in Chicago but dwindled for lack of resources. Now, with federal funding, the program is making a comeback in CPS and expanding to other school districts, including Evanston; Normal, Ill.; Milwaukee; and Minnesota.
The findings on absenteeism are important because research has found that chronic absence in preschool sets the stage for poor attendance in later years as well as lower academic achievement.
The new study’s results showed that:
— Full-day classes had average attendance of 90 percent last year, versus 84 percent for half-day preschools. And while 67 percent of students in half-day programs were chronically absent, the figure fell to 41 percent for full-day programs.
— Schools with a full-time community resource coordinator had lower percentages of chronically absent children: 55 percent versus 64 percent for schools with only a part-time coordinator.
— Stronger parent engagement also helped to decrease chronic absenteeism. Schools with a full-day preschool, high parent engagement and a full-time outreach worker posted chronic absence rates of 27 percent, compared to 77 percent for schools that lacked these factors.
Before the study began, none of the schools had full-day preschools. But last year, 11 of the child-parent center sites began offering full-day classes, with a total of 23 classrooms. This year, that’s increased even more, to 30 classrooms in 13 sites. (Three sites—Velma Thomas, Peck and Edwards–are so overcrowded that they don’t have space to offer a full-day preschool program.)
The study faced a challenge because of school closings and high mobility. Though researchers hoped that 80 percent of the preschool students would stay at their school for kindergarten, the numbers fell somewhat short of that goal: Just 62 percent of preschoolers at schools that were slated to close (or at one school, to undergo a turnaround) entered kindergarten at their designated welcoming schools, and only 72 percent did so at other schools.
“We worked with the new principals to make sure there was a smooth transition,” Reynolds says. “We made a big effort to make sure those kids all stayed, because if they moved and they didn’t move to a [child-parent center] school, they wouldn’t get any of those other services. The leadership teams all made a strong effort to reach out to families.”
Researchers took another step to ensure stability, encouraging principals at receiving schools and at Dewey, the turnaround, to keep teachers who had been trained in the child-parent center model.
Reynolds notes that at Dewey, several staff members stayed on. The parent resource teacher remained, and one of the preschool teachers became the head teacher.
Next, researchers and school staff will home in on providing support to preschool students as they move up through kindergarten, 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade. The emphasis will be on building a community of preschool through 3rd grade teachers who use a similar curriculum and can strike a balance between child-directed, play-focused instruction and instruction directed by the teacher.
Other key aspects of the program include a variety of parent engagement activities, class sizes of no more than 17 in preschool and 25 in kindergarten through 3rd grade, plus the availability of a teacher’s aide who is in the classroom at least half-time.
A leadership team comprised of the head teacher, the parent resource teacher, and a school-community liaison coordinates each child-parent center program.
CPS is providing funding to continue the program for this year’s preschool students, but it’s not clear whether there will be money for the K-3 years.
“We want to work out a sustainability plan,” Reynolds says.
This story has been updated to correct the number Dewey Child-Parent Center staff who were re-hired during the school’s turnaround.