A large number of children in Chicago Public Schools preschools are chronically absent, a new study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research has found.

Nearly half of 3-year-olds and more than a third of 4-year-olds missed at least 15 days during the school year.  African-American students were almost twice as likely as others to be chronically absent.

Once the chronically absent students got to 2nd grade, they were five times more likely than others to still struggle with attendance. They also had lower test scores for every year they missed large amounts of class: Those who had been chronically absent every year had average 2nd-grade test scores just above the score indicating a need for intensive reading intervention.

Students who had the fewest skills when they entered preschool were hit hardest, losing the most ground when they missed school.

“We went into this expecting [absenteeism] to be high, but it really is a significant concern, particularly in a district where there has been this really big push to provide preschool to young students,” says Consortium senior research analyst Stacy Ehrlich.

Driven by strong research support for high-quality preschool education for low-income children, Illinois and CPS have indeed been leaders in expanding early childhood education.

Clues to why students miss school

The Consortium study, which looked at students who were in preschool between the 2008-09 and 2011-12, found that illness was the most common reason the youngest students miss school, accounting for 57 percent of absences. Logistical issues came in second, accounting for 18 percent of absences. These included a lack of transportation to school, a lack of child care to drop off or pick up a child from a half-day program, illness in the family, and other factors like court appearances and siblings who had the day off school.

African-American students and Latino students were sick more often than white students, and were also more likely to miss school for logistical reasons.

The study notes that many challenges with attendance come from half-day programs, which “require that parents find child care for the remainder of the day and arrange drop off /pick up in the middle of the day.” It also found that half-day preschool parents had different attitudes toward attendance because “missing just two-and-a-half hours did not seem too consequential.”

Ehrlich of the Consortium says that teachers and school staff can address attendance issues by both working with individual families and looking for community-level needs like a lack of health care. (Families that rely on the emergency room for health care instead of having a “medical home” like a primary-care physician were found to have higher rates of absenteeism.)

One challenge is that there are very few proven tactics to improve young students’ attendance. In August 2011, Catalyst reported on local strategies to tackle the problem, such as contracts with parents, walking school buses and preschool ambassadors to tout the importance of early learning.

Ehrlich notes that the same problems that cause students to miss school could make it more difficult to learn, so it’s not for certain that the missed school is causing the lower test scores. But, she says, the first step is for schools to identify which students are at risk.

 “You can’t do anything about attendance unless you are monitoring which students are attending school, and flagging students who look like they are heading down a path of chronic absenteeism,” Ehrlich says. “Some of those kids are going to continue that pattern in future years.”

Parents’ beliefs about the importance of preschool attendance have long been thought to contribute to the problem of absenteeism. Children whose parents said in interviews that preschool attendance matters somewhat or doesn’t matter were absent almost twice as many days (13.2 percent of the time) compared to those whose parents said it mattered as much as in later years (7.5 percent of the time).

But Ehrlich says the reasons the study found for absences overall – illness as well as formidable logistical challenges – show that “children not coming to school regularly is not an indication the parents don’t care. They are facing lots and lots of obstacles.”

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