Revere Elementary

At Revere Elementary in Greater Grand Crossing, a whopping 82 percent of preschoolers and 36 percent of kindergarteners missed 18 days of school or more in the 2009-10 school year—just under a month of school in a district that has one of the shortest school years in the country. 

Missing so much class time takes an educational toll, at a time when children, especially low-income students—at Revere, 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch—need to get a good academic start.  Revere Principal Veronica Thompson notes that, as kindergarteners from the last two years have gone on to 2nd and 1st grade, those with the worst attendance “are definitely not as prepared.”

“We have an excellent, excellent Head Start teacher, but she worries she’s not as effective, because the students simply aren’t there,” Thompson says. “You have students who are missing weeks at a time.” 

With a new school year approaching, CEO Jean-Claude Brizard and Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently launched the district’s annual back-to-school campaign by going door-to-door in a neighborhood with one of the highest truancy rates in the city—Auburn-Gresham, just west of Greater Grand Crossing – to highlight the need for good attendance. 

Indeed, Revere and other Track E schools—as well as schools that enroll mostly low-income African-American students or large numbers of students with disabilities—are more likely to have attendance problems, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of Chicago Public Schools data from the 2009-10 school year. (See graphics: Worse than averageUnequal attendance problemsMost preschoolers chronically absentLosing a month of school) In part, the problem stems from some parents’ lack of awareness that Track E schools start earlier—this year, Aug. 8, a month before the regular start on Sept. 6. 

Although the problem is more acute in these schools, it’s still an issue districtwide: At least 14 percent of kindergarteners and 62 percent of preschoolers were chronically absent in 2009-10, according to Catalyst’s analysis.  And nearly 24,000 students in preschool through 3rd grade missed 18 days or more of school—15 percent of all students at those grade levels. More research on the problem, and its impact on students, is about to get underway at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research. 

Nationally, experts are paying more attention to the problem of early absenteeism. But Chicago’s numbers are higher than in other districts: About one in 10 kindergarten and 1st-grade students are chronically absent nationwide, says Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national organization that helps districts track chronic absenteeism and find solutions to keep kids in school. Few cities track chronic absenteeism in preschool, so it’s hard to say how Chicago stacks up. 

(In responding to Catalyst’s Freedom of Information Act request for school-by-school absence data, the district—citing a federal law on student privacy—redacted data in cases for which the number of students missing 18 or more days was fewer than 10. For instance, if fewer than 10 students in a class were absent that amount of time, the information was not provided.) 

An early indicator of later problems 

Experts note that school attendance habits are set early on, so a pattern of missing classes in the primary grades makes it far more likely that students will have academic—and social—problems later on. Since low-income students are absent the most often, and the effects for these children can be devastating. 

study recently released by Attendance Works linked kindergarten and 1st grade absences to a decline in test scores and found that “if a child is chronically absent in his or her first two years, it may not matter if s/he entered school strongly prepared to succeed.” (The study was carried out with California-based Applied Survey Research.) 

Another study by Byron Barrington and Bryan Hendricks at the University of Wisconsin Center at Wausau found that dropouts from the Class of 1985 in two high schools could be identified with 66 percent accuracy by the time they were in 3rd grade. The cutoff that put students at risk of not graduating: Just six or more absences. 

Bonnie Roelle, Preschool for All coordinator for CPS, notes the scarcity of resources to address the problem: just two social workers for more than 400 Preschool for All classrooms. That means teachers, principals, or other staff are mostly on their own battling absenteeism. 

“Our children are dependent on someone [besides themselves] to get them to school,” Roelle says. 

Preschool and kindergarten students miss schools for much the same reasons, such as bad weather and sickness, that older students are absent. But parents might be more prone to keep young children home. And some parents don’t consider preschool and kindergarten to be important, believing that “real school” doesn’t start until 1st grade. 

At Spencer Elementary on the West Side, Principal Shawn Jackson says some parents think these children are just “playing games.” Teachers take seriously the work of changing that mindset and reinforcing the importance of early education, he adds. 

“We provide community days, invite primary parents in to see the work of their students during school hours,” Jackson says. “We have meetings to talk about student data.” 

Half-day programs a factor 

Most preschools and some kindergarten classes in Chicago are just a half day, lasting only two and a half hours (not including time for meals). Because of logistics, half-day programs are hard for working parents to navigate, contributing inadvertently to absenteeism. “Many of our parents have jobs with hourly wages,” says Thompson. “They do not have the flexibility to pick up and drop off at different times during the day.” 

Attendance at Revere fluctuates dramatically, Thompson says, depending on whether she can offer full or half-day programs. The Summer 2011 issue of Catalyst In Depth found that the district lacks a policy for helping schools cover the cost of full-day kindergarten, although Brizard recently announced he will expand the number of full-day kindergarten seats paid for by the district. 

At Spencer, parents sometimes enroll their children in the school’s Head Start program temporarily, until they can find full-day child care, Jackson says. Before they leave, the child’s attendance becomes spotty and thus raises the absentee rate. 

Chronic absences have the greatest negative academic impact on students in half-day programs, according to “Present, Engaged, and Accounted For,” a 2008 report by the National Center for Children in Poverty. 

Disabled students, too, often have a harder time getting to school. Rod Estvan, education policy analyst for Access Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, says that young students in special education often have more severe disabilities and thus, more chronic health problems. These students may have lengthy bus rides to schools—perhaps an hour each way—and delayed buses lead to tardiness or even absence. 

“It can be horrendous, very traumatic,” Estvan says. 

Research to find solutions 

A new study begins Sept. 1 that should provide more information on how big the preschool absenteeism problem is in CPS and what effect it is having on students. The study will fill a gap in the existing research on early absenteeism, which mostly focuses on students in kindergarten and up. 

Stacy Ehrlich, senior research analyst at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, says researchers will examine data from students who are currently in 2nd and 3rd grade to see how their preschool attendance records influenced their current achievement. (The research is being funded by a $500,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation.) 

“We’re going to be looking at different kinds of patterns,” Ehrlich says. “They might be missing school a couple times every week over the year, versus being gone a month at a time.” 

Ehrlich hopes the study will raise awareness of the importance of attendance in preschool, if researchers can show how much ground students lose when they don’t come to class. 

Researchers will also survey teachers and parents about the reasons for students’ absences, in order to determine what barriers—like transportation or health problems—are keeping them away from school. The findings will be shared with local and national policymakers, which could provide an impetus for Chicago—and other cities—to start coming up with solutions. 

A report from the Center for New York City Affairs notes that some schools have had success collaborating with social service agencies “to help engage families and organize community-based family support or other services.” In community schools, extra staff resources and agency ties can help address the issue. 

Schools develop strategies 

Some principals, school network officers and outside community groups have launched their own strategies, including contracts parents sign, promising to get their children to school. 

Lionel Harris, an attendance administrator in the Garfield-Humboldt Elementary Network, is drafting a contract for preschool and kindergarten parents. The proposed contract warns that children may be dropped from the school if they rack up a certain number of unexcused absences or missed a certain number of hours because of tardiness. Along with the contract will come a mandatory parent workshop on attendance and supporting children’s education.

“If they want to enroll their child, chances are they will sign it. It gives us a little teeth for ensuring they follow through on their commitment,” Harris says. “Preschool is kind of like a privilege, and kindergarten is not mandatory. We are in a position to say to the parent, ‘If you don’t follow our procedures or processes, then your child is not entitled to come to our school.’” 

(District spokesman Frank Shuftan says that CPS policy prohibits schools from removing students, including preschoolers and kindergarteners, for non-attendance or tardiness. Schools can only drop students if their whereabouts are completely unknown for a long period of time.) 

Other school networks also use contracts, but most are not punitive. In the Pilsen-Little Village Elementary Network, failure to meet attendance expectations leads to a parent meeting to set up an “individualized attendance plan” that can include referral to community organizations for counseling or other assistance. 

“Letting them know that we’re here to help, and not to hinder, has been a really big success with us,” says Leslie McCants, the attendance coordinator for the Pilsen-Little Village Elementary Network. The network’s staff also will make two home visits and “an enormous amount of phone calls” to track down absentees before removing them from the rolls. 

Ellen Schumer, director of Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), also says CPS would do well to get information about the importance of preschool and kindergarten to other relatives and active people in the community. When they convey the message to other parents, as in the group’s Preschool Ambassadors program, it is powerful. 

COFI is piloting another potentially promising model.  In the walking school bus, adults are paid $10 per hour to walk young students to and from school. It costs about $1,000 per student. But finding adults has been difficult because workers quit when they find jobs with more hours. 

But Schumer says this kind of strategy is better than punitive measures like dropping students. 

“You want to make clear the expectations, but… our goal should be to get help and turn around the attendance process for chronically absent kids, versus move them out to where they have no support,” she says. 

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