My audacious idea: Track and address chronic absence in early elementary school so every child in Baltimore can reach their full potential in school and beyond.
Last year, one out of six Baltimore children were chronically absent in kindergarten through third grade– meaning that they missed twenty or more schools days for excused or unexcused reasons. In the worst case, 45% of one school’s K-3rd graders missed twenty days or more. When young children miss school, it often signifies that their families are struggling with one or more challenges, frequently confounded by poverty, such as unaffordable housing, poor transportation, chronic illness, family instability or a lack of connection to their child’s school.
Regardless of the reason, chronic early absence is a serious problem. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, chronically absent kindergartners perform worse than their regularly attending peers in reading and math by first grade. Among the poorest children, chronic absence in kindergarten predicts the lowest school performance at the end of fifth grade. Although attending school consistently does not guarantee academic success, missing a lot of school virtually assures academic failure, especially for poor children. The education of regularly attending children is also harmed if the learning needs of chronically absent peers disrupt the classroom.
The good news is that missing a lot of school is not inevitable even when poverty levels are high. Several of Baltimore’s elementary schools – including Cecil, Hamilton, Northwood, Paca and Pinderhughes – have many low-income students with good attendance records. In other cities, schools working together with community agencies and families, have made a tremendous difference in school attendance. Based on these promising examples from around the country, I believe Baltimore should:
• Contact families of frequently absent students, and provide them with social and economic supports.
• Offer incentives for attendance to all students.
• Help families understand that regular school attendance starting in kindergarten is critical.
• Improve schools so that they engage children and families and offer a high quality education.
What do you think Baltimore should do to increase school attendance, especially among those most frequently absent? What can we do before, during and after children enter kindergarten?