Raising Attendance at Tulsa’s Head Start Program

article | March 13, 2012

Three years ago, the Community Action Project in Tulsa discovered it had an attendance problem in its Head Start centers.  Almost two-thirds of children were “chronically absent,” meaning they had missed more than 10 percent of school days.

The non-profit organization was fortunate in one way, though: It had collected data that enabled it to see which children were not arriving at school.  Armed with new information, the organization, known as CAP, jumped into gear to address the problem.

CAP instituted a two–prong strategy to cut down on absences. First, attendance expectations are made clear to parents before their children enroll, through the program application, a parent orientation, and home visits. Secondly, using a real-time data system, an “attendance improvement procedure” is initiated for any child absent more than 20 percent of the time, who misses more than 10 days of school in any month, or who consistently arrives more than 15 minutes late.

The result has been a big jump in attendance. During the 2010-11 school year, 52 percent of students attended school 90 percent of the time, up from 36 percent attending that often in 2009-10. Data on children’s academic gains is showing that the improved attendance may have an impact on literacy.  Of the children with good attendance, 88 percent met all of the organization’s literacy goals. By contrast, those literacy achievements were found in only 78 percent of children who had poor attendance.  

A survey also picked up some interesting side notes: For example, children who speak a language other than English at home tend to have higher attendance. And the most common reported reason for absences is “parent choice” (42 percent), followed by illness (29 percent), and transportation problems (9 percent).

The new data came from a webinar earlier this month, “Right from the Beginning: Early Childhood Strategies for Reducing Chronic Absence” (video and slides are available here).

The webinar, which attracted nearly 1,000 viewers, is part of a larger effort to spread the word about troubling early learning attendance rates and what to do about it.  In a 2008 report Present, Engaged and Accounted For,  Hedy N. Chang and Mariajosé Romero found that children who were chronically absent in kindergarten had the lowest academic performance in first grade.

When a large number of children are not showing up in their preschool classrooms, “it can slow down classroom instruction,” Chang said. Most pre-K, kindergarten and elementary school teachers “take roll” and get a count of how many children are away on a given day. But those aggregate percentages do not tell you which children are absent on a regular basis.  For example, federal regulations require Head Start providers to show they are hitting an 85 percent “average daily attendance” rate, but even if they are hitting those numbers, they may be enrolling several children who are absent for several days each week.  

Sickness is sometimes the culprit – and of course ill children should be at home – but sometimes other factors come into play, such as broken down cars, lackadaisical attitudes about preschool, and parents who worked late the night before and have a hard time getting up early to get their children to school. Parents and teachers need to recognize that it is worth extra the effort to bring their children to preschool or school on a regular basis.

“Low-income kids depend on school,” Chang said.  “It is the place where they are surrounded by words and language. If their parents are struggling or working two jobs and not at home, their children are missing that language-rich environment.”

Other programs highlighted in the webinar included “On Time, On Target With Success,” which is underway in Baltimore with three Head Start agencies and an elementary school and “Abriendo Puertas”  (opening doors), a program for Latino parents that focuses on attendance and other education issues. The Attendance Works web site also includes resources and details at programs around the country.