Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr.

A recent study revealed that DC’s preschoolers miss a whole lot of school. Universal preschool may not mean much if the kids who need it most aren’t there, but getting them there can be complicated.

Almost 1 in 5 DC preschoolers had more than 10 unexcused absences last year, according to a study recently released by DC Action for Children, a nonprofit that focuses on disadvantaged children in DC. And because that figure doesn’t count excused absences, it almost certainly understates the problem.

Those absences deprive many low-income children of their best chance to achieve at the level of their middle-class peers. Kids who miss a lot of preschool are more likely to start kindergarten without the skills they need, and they may never catch up.

The truancy rate, defined as the proportion of students with more than 10 unexcused absences, was 17% for preschoolers and kindergarteners in DCPS last year. The only category of students with a higher rate was high school students, at 42%. The truancy rate for students in grades 1 through 5 was 7%, and for those in grades 6-8 it was 8%.

While high school truancy has attracted a good deal of attention, preschool truancy has been largely overlooked. What’s more, actual absenteeism in preschool is almost certainly much higher than the truancy rate would suggest. That figure only counts unexcused absences, when students don’t have a note from a parent with a valid reason, such as illness.

Excused absences are more common among younger children. But DCPS doesn’t track the number of students who miss more than 10 days of school for any reason, excused or unexcused. That rate, which is tracked by most other jurisdictions, is called the chronic absentee rate, and it’s considered to be the best measure for identifying students who are at risk.

DC’s charter sector does track its chronic absentee rate, and it provides some idea of what that rate might be for DCPS. In charters, the rate of unexcused preschool absences is only 8%, less than half of DCPS’s. But if you add excused absences, the rate soars to 31%.

Measures of average attendance for DC schools may look encouraging, in the high 80’s or low 90’s in terms of percentages. But those figures can mask the number of kids who are truant or chronically absent. One highly regarded charter preschool network, AppleTree, was reasonably content with its 88% attendance rate. But when school officials looked at the rate of chronic absenteeism, they were surprised to find it was 25%.

Chronic absenteeism and student achievement

Studies have shown that chronic absenteeism in preschool is correlated with academic problems later on, especially if those children are low-income. A study done in Baltimore showed that 25% of the students who were chronically absent in pre-K and kindergarten were held back in 3rd grade, as compared to 9% of other students. Third grade is a critical turning point, when a lack of proficiency in reading strongly correlates with future academic problems.

In Chicago, where almost half of 3-year-olds and over one-third of 4-year-olds were chronically absent, students who missed a lot of preschool scored lower on a kindergarten readiness test and had lower reading scores at the end of 2nd grade. The study also found that kids who are absent a lot in preschool are more likely to be chronically absent in later grades.

Poor minority students in Chicago were the most likely to be chronically absent. Those are also the students who have the most to gain from attending preschool. Poor minority children generally start kindergarten behind their middle-class peers, and the achievement gap between the two groups only widens in higher grades.

Why is preschool absenteeism so high? The Chicago study found that more than half of the absences were due to illness. Another 18% were due to transportation difficulties and other logistical obstacles.

What are the causes in DC?

No doubt illness is also a major cause of preschool absences here. To some extent, there’s no way around that: little kids get sick a lot. But according to DC Action for Children, one charter school, Eagle Academy’s Wheeler Road campus, has educated its parents about when an illness is serious enough to warrant keeping a child at home. Along with other strategies, that has helped reduce absenteeism.

DC Action for Children urges a city-wide survey, like the one in Chicago, to identify the causes of preschool absenteeism here. While individual schools can try to help chronically absent students on a case-by-case basis, the organization says it would be more effective for DC agencies and community organizations to work with schools through broader initiatives like health campaigns and improved transportation.

But Jack McCarthy, CEO of AppleTree Early Learning, a network of charter preschools serving a largely low-income population, isn’t sure a survey is needed. Many of the barriers to attendance, he says, stem from problems caused by poverty.

Families with absent children have sometimes been evicted from their homes. Others have chronic health problems or child custody and domestic issues.

The school provides as much support as it can. One mother was living at the DC General homeless shelter and taking two buses to get her children to school, resulting in frequent tardiness (AppleTree counts arrivals after 9 am as absences). The school was able to find spaces for her children at another AppleTree site within walking distance of DC General.

Preschool seen as daycare?

Some observers have suggested that many low-income families view public preschool as free daycare, using it on an as-needed basis. McCarthy says that while there may be some truth to that, it’s an oversimplification.

At the beginning of the year, AppleTree families may in fact view preschool as daycare, he says. But after the school explains that their children are learning important skills, attendance often improves.

Still, despite those efforts, about 25% of AppleTree students are chronically absent. McCarthy was surprised by that figure, which the school hadn’t calculated until I asked about it. While the school would like to gets its daily attendance above the current rate of 88%, that was the figure it had set as its goal.

Now, he says, the school will be measuring things differently, and will perhaps intervene before a child has the 10 consecutive absences that currently trigger a home visit. McCarthy admits that it can be difficult to communicate a sense of urgency about preschool attendance to low-income parents, many of whom didn’t have great experiences at school themselves. Even something as minor as a rainy day can affect attendance, he says.

But McCarthy says that expelling children who have missed a lot of school, as Councilmember and mayoral candidate David Catania has proposed, is too punitive a reaction.

He believes that most attendance problems have their roots in poverty, and he favors measures that would address the challenges poor families face. For example, he says, the District could develop a better system of providing temporary housing and communicating where the vacancies are. Some children miss school because their parents have to apply in person for housing every morning.

And it seems that a convenient location can eliminate many of the logistical barriers to attendance. Two of AppleTree’s sites are in developments that include subsidized housing, and McCarthy says those are the sites with the best attendance rates.

With 80% of 3-year-olds and 94% of 4-year-olds now enrolled in preschool, DC ranks first in the nation in preschool access. But if we want kids to truly benefit from the experience, high enrollment figures are not enough. We need to get a better handle on how many kids are chronically absent, and then do whatever we can to make sure they show up.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.