We’ve become familiar with the cliche of the high school dropout. But maybe it’s the kindergarten ditchers we should be paying attention to.
Students in California are missing school early — as early as kindergarten, according to a new report from State Attorney General Kamala Harris’s office.
The report analyzed data on about 350,000 California elementary school students throughout the state. It found that more than any other students, kindergarteners missed at least one-tenth of the school year.
Chronic absence, defined in the report as missing at least 18 days of the school year for any reason, was at 14.2% for California kindergarteners in the 2014-15 school year, compared with 6% of fifth-graders. Chronic truancy, defined as unexcused absences for at least 10% of the school year (about 18 days), was at 2.1% for kindergartners versus 0.9% for fifth-graders. And severe chronic absence, which is missing one-fifth of the school year for any reason, was at 2.4% for kindergartners and 0.8% for fifth-graders.
There are a number of reasons that absence rates are highest for kindergarteners. One perception across all backgrounds is the idea that kindergarten isn’t as important as middle school and high school, and that it’s ok for parents to let their kids stay home, said Hedy Chang, director of the group Attendance Works and an advisor on this report. Indeed, kindergarten isn’t mandatory in California.
“If we can’t get these kids in school every day starting right at kindergarten, the attendance gaps we’re seeing become achievement gaps,” said Jill Habig, a special assistant attorney general. Those students are at risk of dropping out, which increases their chances of ending up in prison or being unemployed.
“How do we prevent kids from feeling like they ever need to resort to crime?” Chang said. “School is still the best pathway out of poverty.”
The other two primary types of reasons are “barriers” and “aversion,” Chang said. Barriers include health problems such as asthma or dental problems, which can be worse in young children. Low-income families without access to healthcare can’t address these quickly, so the missed days add up. There are also barriers such as limited access to transportation, unsafe communities and family health problems.
Aversion can range from a child’s separation anxiety to a parent’s perception that a child is having a negative experience in school, Chang said.
Schools can improve attendance by connecting with the parents and focusing on students’ strengths, said Terri Martinez-McGraw, executive director of the National Center for School Engagement. The Colorado-based organization works with schools and districts to decrease truancy.
Parents have negative experiences with schools for many reasons — their children might face bullying or might have been mistreated, or the parents didn’t see school as a safe place during their own childhoods.
African American students, for example, have the highest rates of absenteeism.
They are also suspended more than other students. That trend starts as early as kindergarten, where 4% of black boys are suspended compared with 2.8% of white boys. By fifth grade, the gap has grown, with a 31.2% suspension rate for black male students compared with 6.7% for white male students.
If kids are being inappropriately disciplined, their parents are not going to send them to school, Chang said.
Parents need to feel like school is a safe and trustworthy place for their children, Martinez-McGraw said. Schools should survey parents about their children during kindergarten or pre-k enrollment to focus on and develop a child’s strengths.
This would include such questions as: What are your child’s interests? What does your child like to do? What are some of the things you do as a family unit? What are some of the things that are going to motivate your student?
These answers would signal to the parent that the school cares about the child as an individual, she said, and it would help the school figure out how to best teach that child.
FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to include Harris's name.
Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @sonali_kohli or by email at email@example.com.
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