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Preschool Matters Today

The Empty Space on the Carpet: Absenteeism in the Early Years

September 19, 2011

While the Perfect Attendance award may be a coveted prize for some, young students are missing an alarming number of school days. According to the national nonprofit Attendance Works, about 1 in 10 kindergarteners and first-graders are chronically absent—that is, missing 18 or more days of the school year, or about 10 percent of class days. Most research on attendance does not start until kindergarten, but a new analysis in Chicago makes clear the issue persists even earlier.  During the 2009-2010 school year, 62 percent of preschoolers in the city’s state-funded Preschool for All program were chronically absent. In more than a quarter of program settings, the rate of chronic absenteeism reached 80 percent. From preschool to grade 3, 15 percent of all students missed 18 days or more of school. Attendance problems were especially seen at schools in low-income areas.

Absenteeism is a serious obstacle to getting the most out of school, even starting in early elementary school. Chronic absenteeism in kindergarten and first grade is linked with a decline in test scores and can cancel out a degree of school readiness.  As one principal noted in the Catalyst Chicago article, “We have an excellent, excellent Head Start teacher, but she worries she’s not as effective because the students simply aren’t there.” A study by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) also found that children who were chronically absent in kindergarten were likely to continue this pattern in first grade, though the study did not address preschool attendance.  If half the battle is showing up, these young students are not making the cut.

So why are so many young learners not making it to circle time?

The Preschool for All coordinator for Chicago Public Schools cites the lack of support staff—having only two social workers for over 400 classrooms leaves teachers in the lurch in fighting the absentee battle. Beyond just Chicago, parents may think consistent attendance isn’t important until “real” school starts in first grade.

Part-day programs may also play a role—parents with inflexible schedules need to arrange alternate child care after the school day ends, as well as transportation to a second site. This hassle may be enough to just forego the pre-K classroom for the whole day if another setting is easier. As shown in Table 1, in the 2009-2010 school year, only 12 of the 54 state-funded programs profiled in NIEER’s Yearbook required all children to have full- or school-day schedules (minimum of 5.5 hours per day). Many other programs allow for local flexibility or may combine two part-time slots to create a full day, but these strategies may still leave parents without the opportunity for full-day classes for their preschool-age children.

Table 1: State-Funded Programs Requiring School- or Full-Day Schedules, 2009-2010

State Hours of operation per day
Alabama Full day, 6.5 hours/day
Arkansas Full day, 7 hours/day
Georgia Full day, 6.5 instructional hours/day
Louisiana 8(g) School day, 6 instructional hours/day
Louisiana LA4 Full day, 10 hours/day; School day, 6 hours/day
Louisiana NSECD Full day, 10 hours/day
New Jersey Abbott School day, 6 hours/day
North Carolina School day, 6-6.5 hours/day
Rhode Island Full day, 6 hours/day
South Carolina CDEPP Full day, 6.5 hours/day
Tennessee Full day, 5.5 hours/day
District of Columbia PEEP School day, 6.5 hours/day

Some state-funded programs provided extended-day services using program funding, though others require that it be paid for out of a separate funding source. These wrap-around services may be limited to children whose families receive child care subsidies or meet other requirements set by a state human services department, leaving working poor or middle-income families without extended-day services. As Table 2 shows, only 47.3 percent of children in Head Start programs in 2009-2010 were in a full-day, 5 days-per-week setting; another 4.5 percent attended full-day classrooms but only four days per week.

Table 2: Head Start Enrollment by Schedule, 2009-2010

Enrollment Option Percentage of Children
Center-based Full Day (5 days per week)


Center-based Part Day (5 days per week)


Center-based Full Day (4 days per week)


Center-based Part Day (4 days per week)


Home-based Program


Combination Option Program


Family Child Care Option


Locally Designed Option


Note: These figures do not include the Migrant or American Indiana Alaskan Native programs.

Source: 2009-2010 Head Start Program Information Report (PIR) Enrollment Statistics Reports – National Level

The Office of Head Start provides some support in converting part-day slots to full-day slots, though they are still a long way from providing this to all students. In addition to being more convenient for working families, full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten programs have been found to have a greater impact on children’s learning than half-day programs.

How can preschool programs combat the problem of chronic absenteeism? Catalyst Chicago reports that some programs are requiring parents to sign contracts regarding attendance expectations. Some districts may be able to drop students once they have missed a certain number of days, while others use the contracts as a means of communicating expectations, albeit without teeth. Others suggest that improving outreach, as both Chicago and Detroit have done with older grades, and conveying the importance of consistent attendance in pre-K is a less punitive approach.  Mandating full-day programs and making it easier to provide extended-day services on site could relieve burdens for parents and improve attendance rates; even requiring a school-day schedule would simplify pick-up for parents with students also in older grades.

State-funded pre-K programs have made tremendous progress in the past decade, increasing enrollment, beefing up standards, and expanding program options. But all of these efforts are undermined if programs cannot get kids into the story corner.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER