Getting Preschoolers off to a Good Start

Preschoolers who are chronically absent are more likely to have poor attendance as they transition into grade school, increasing the likelihood that they will drop out of school. The Georgia Head Start Association is taking a leadership role in Georgia’s Head Start and Early Head Start sites to stem the tide of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing more than 10 percent of the school days in a year.

Before we can improve attendance, we need to understand how many children in Head Start and Early Head Start programs are missing too many days of school. The 2013 – 2014 school year was the first time we encouraged our grantees to track attendance. Sixty-one percent of sites reported back to us with interesting results. Levels of chronic absenteeism varied widely across the sites. One Head Start site reported that less than 1 percent of children were chronically absent. Meanwhile, another site reported that 84 percent of students were chronically absent.

We are in the process of collecting data from year two of this effort, but have already seen promising results. Ninth District Opportunity, which operates 26 licensed centers in 20 Northeast Georgia counties, decreased chronic absenteeism in its sites by 8 percent. Staff there stresses the importance of attendance in conversations with parents, they track student attendance, and provide transportation to families when possible.

Easter Seals of North Georgia, which operates Head Start and Early Head Start programs in five north Georgia counties, decreased chronic absenteeism by 1 percent and made attendance a part of its five-year strategic plan. Easter Seals sites posted attendance thermometers, providing a visual reminder to both parents and staff about the importance of regular attendance. The sites also created Quality Improvement Attendance Teams and tasked them with regularly reviewing attendance data and providing annual recommendations for strategies to reduce chronic absenteeism.

A growing body of research is showing that school climate has a powerful influence on attendance. The Georgia Department of Education (DOE) and Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) are actively promoting the use of evidence-based frameworks to improve learning climates in Georgia’s public schools and early-learning programs. And they are working together to implement a prototype for aligning the two frameworks in order to more effectively support children’s social-emotional and cognitive development across the first eight years of children’s lives.

We will work with these two agencies and the implementing partner, the Metro Regional Educational Service Agency, to share what they are learning with our grantees to help them strengthen their attendance efforts. With Georgia data showing that absences in excess of five days have a measurable impact on student achievement, we also plan to begin tracking the number of children in our programs who miss that many days.

Other Approaches Georgia’s Head Start and Early Head Start use:

  • Providing transportation to parents when possible
  • Emphasizing the importance of coming to school every day and sending home flyers about attendance
  • Emphasizing the importance of early-learning programs in ensuring that children are fully prepared and ready to succeed in school when they transition into kindergarten
  • Inviting representatives from the local education agencies to attend the monthly parent-center committee meetings to reinforce the importance of attendance
  • Having Family Service Workers and Teachers follow up with families when a child has missed two or three consecutive days
  • Conducting home visits when a child has missed three consecutive days
  • Promoting nutritious meals and regular exercise as a way of keeping children healthy enough to attend school

Janice M. Haker is director of the Head Start State Collaboration Office.