At the core of school improvement and education reform is an assumption so widely understood that it is rarely invoked: students have to be present and engaged in order to learn. That is why the discovery that thousands of our youngest students are at academically at-risk because of extended absences when they first embark upon their school careers is as remarkable as it is consequential. Schools and communities have a choice: we can work together early on to ensure families get their children to class consistently or we can pay later for failing to intervene before problems are more difficult and costly to ameliorate.

Common sense and research suggest that attending school regularly is important to ensuring children develop a strong foundation for subsequent learning. During the early elementary years, children are gaining basic social and academic skills critical to ongoing academic success. Unless students attain these essential skills by third grade, they often require extra help to catch up and are at grave risk of eventually dropping out of school. Moreover, when chronic absence occurs (missing 10% – nearly a month – or more of school over the course of a year counting both excused and unexcused absences), everyone pays. The educational experiences of children who attend school regularly can be diminished when teachers must divert their attention to meet the learning and social needs of children who miss substantial amounts of school.

Chronic absence in the early grades reflects the degree to which schools, communities and families adequately address the needs of young children. Attendance is higher when schools provide a rich, engaging learning experience, have stable, experienced and skilled teachers and actively engage parents in their children’s education. Chronic early absence decreases when educational institutions and communities actively communicate the importance of going to school regularly to all students and their parents, and reach out to families when their children begin to show patterns of excessive absence. Attendance suffers when families are struggling to keep up with the routine of school despite the lack of reliable transportation, working long hours in poorly paid jobs with little flexibility, unstable and unaffordable housing, inadequate health care and escalating community violence. At the same time, communities can help lower chronic absence by providing early childhood experiences that prepare children and families for entry into formal education.

Key Findings:

  • Chronic absentees in kindergarten have the lowest academic performance in first grade (Participation in full-day as opposed to half-day kindergarten seems to lessen the negative impact of chronic absence in kindergarten among poor children. Going to school regularly in the early years is especially critical for children from families living in poverty, who are less like to have the resources to help children make up for lost time in the classroom. Among poor children, chronic absence in kindergarten predicts the lowest levels of educational achievement at the end of fifth grade).
  • Poor children who were chronic absentees in kindergarten had the lowest performance in reading and math in fifth grade (An estimated one in ten kindergarten and first grade students are chronically absent nationally

– -Last year, more than 90,000 children in grades K through 5 missed at least one month of school, totaling one-fifth of all elementary students. In high poverty neighborhoods, this number approached one-third of primary grade students. (