Pre-K Attendance is a Strong Indicator of Future Success

Two new reports from the Urban Institute highlight the importance of pre-K attendance and what schools are doing to curb absenteeism
Blog Post
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July 14, 2016

Research has demonstrated that absenteeism in the early grades negatively impacts academic achievement, attendance, truancy and dropout rates in future grades. To date, much of the focus on attendance has begun in kindergarten, but data suggest that earlier efforts during pre-K may prove more beneficial. Few school districts, however, systematically track pre-K absenteeism as they do for other grades. The District of Columbia Public School District (DCPS) is one district that does; it mandates the same attendance tracking standards for pre-K as it does for K-12.

A new set of reports from the Urban Institute examines pre-K attendance in DCPS. The first report examines how attendance in pre-K influences attendance in kindergarten through second grade. The second report offers strategies to improve attendance gleaned from a qualitative analysis of four DC elementary schools with better than average attendance.

Pre-K Absenteeism is a Strong Predictor of Absenteeism Through Second Grade

In its analysis, The Urban Institute groups students into four categories of attendance:

Attendance Category Percent of Days Absent Percent of pre-K population in DC
Satisfactory < 5% 30%
At Risk 5-10% 33%
Chronically Absent 10-20% 26%
Severely Chronically Absent > 20% 11%

Source: Does Attendance in Early Education Predict Attendance in Elementary School?

Based on the Urban Institute’s analysis, students who are more frequently absent in pre-K are much more likely to be absent in later grades. For example, the chronically absent group of pre-K students, comprising 26 percent of DCPS pre-K students, is 9.1 times more likely to be chronically absent or severely chronically absent in kindergarten, 5.9 times more likely to be so in 1st grade, and 4.4 times more likely to be so in second grade than students with satisfactory attendance.

The table below shows the relative risk of chronic or severe chronic absenteeism of each group of students at each grade level compared to those with satisfactory attendance in pre-K.

Grade K (2014-15) Grade 1 (2014-2015 Grade 2 (2014-2015)
Satisfactory NA NA NA
At Risk 3.4 1.9 2.3
Chronically Absent 9.1 5.9 4.4
Severely Chronically Absent 14.4 13.2 7.4

Source: Does Attendance in Early Education Predict Attendance in Elementary School?

These data suggest that interventions that lead to higher attendance in pre-K could prove immensely valuable in later years, and thus schools would be wise to focus more of their efforts on driving regular pre-K attendance. The four schools examined in the second report do just that.

Curbing Absenteeism is a Collaborative Effort Between Parents and Schools in Building a Shared Vision that Attendance Matters

The prevailing sentiment from the report analyzing the four DCPS elementary schools is that it takes a combination of structural and relational elements to drive strong attendance in pre-K. It is important for schools to build partnerships with families and communities, as well as develop consistent and reliable structures to measure, track, and respond to attendance data. The school and families must share a vision that attendance is a priority.

There are two main strategies these schools used to improve attendance:

1. With positive and purposeful communication, schools worked to develop parent understanding that pre-K attendance matters. Many factors cause absenteeism in pre-K  health concerns like weaker immune systems and asthma, logistical barriers like transportation and getting small children ready, and personal obstacles like homelessness and family issues.
There’s another reason that may be easier for schools to respond to: parents’ perspectives on the relative value of pre-K attendance. In interviews, parents demonstrated that they considered pre-K to be more similar to a child care arrangement than a school environment. Many did not realize the important role that pre-K plays in preparing their children for kindergarten and beyond.
The report highlights the importance of setting clear expectations that attendance in pre-K is equally important to attendance in later grades. One school staff member interviewed in the report spoke about how to frame the message to parents: 
“I think the biggest thing—and this is where parents buy in most—is understanding the educational impact of attendance, not looking at it short term, but do you want your kids to go to college? When you present it that way, it allows parents to see that what they do today, it has an impact on their long-term goals for their children.”
The report notes it is not only the content of the messaging that matters, but the timing as well. School administrators stressed the importance of engaging families before the school year begins. At this time, families have few school-related habits, and are more easily influenced to form routines built around regular attendance. Early communication should happen at open houses, home visits, and any other time parents and school staff meet. It’s also helpful to sustain communication efforts throughout the year, and use a variety of mediums including face-to-face meetings, texting, email, and phone calls to reach parents.
Perhaps most importantly, parents should feel welcome in schools. When parents feel welcome, they feel confident that they are leaving their children in a safe and supportive environment each day. Each of the schools included in the study has numerous events, like breakfasts, assemblies, and celebrations, that bring families together and affirm parents’ efforts. One school has a parent resource room where parents can meet after dropping children off, which helps to form a community among families in the school. These efforts can go a long way in building trust and pride in the school, which can help increase attendance.
2. Successful schools also build a culture of attendance with clear and consistent internal systems. Tracking and reacting to attendance can be a highly burdensome activity, involving teachers, front office staff, administrators, and even students. To deal with this complexity, effective schools often empower a single staff member to take ownership of managing attendance systems.
The schools all have an attendance lead, usually an administrator, who is delegated the additional authority over attendance. He or she manages an attendance committee, comprising a variety of school staff and sometimes parents and students, that responds to absences and connects families, as needed, to outside organizations and resources. A key function of the attendance committee is to bridge the disconnect between front office staff and teachers, thus facilitating procedures for recording and submitting attendance.
The schools also employ protocols similar to DCPS’ K-12 attendance accountability system for pre-K students and families. Staff contact parents after one or two, three, five, seven, and ten unexcused absences. At one or two absences, teachers contact parents. At three, a letter is sent home and parents receive a phone call. The K-12 and pre-K systems begin to differ at five absences, because pre-K attendance is technically voluntary. Pre-K families are not subject to consequences for absenteeism, like contact from the Metropolitan Police Department and referrals to DC agencies for suspected educational neglect. However, these four schools still reach out to families if unexcused absences continue to mount.
Looking forward, district and school leaders can create a culture of attendance by developing parent-school partnerships as early as possible. To do so, they would be wise to ensure that parents understand the importance of pre-K attendance, give ownership of attendance initiatives to individuals and groups, and track and respond to absences in a purposeful way.  Organizations such as Attendance Works and the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading have identified absenteeism as a key issue in children’s educational success. The Urban Institute’s reports reaffirm its importance and show that a focus on attendance specifically in pre-K can positively impact attendance and achievement for years to come.