PHILADELPHIA, MISS. – A half hour before school ends each day, a frustrated Tiffany Plott finds herself up against a line of impatient parents who want to pick their kindergarteners up early.
As principal of Neshoba Central Elementary School in this rural town, Plott worries about what the littlest learners are missing at a time when kindergarten has become more rigorous. By October, students are expected to write sentences, know most letters of the alphabet and recognize and write the first 10 numerals.
Yet two months since the school year began, 29 percent of the 298 kindergarten students at Neshoba Central have missed at least one day. Eight have missed five days or more.
Statewide, kindergarteners have the lowest average daily attendance rate of any K-8 grade; just 94.5 percent during the 2012-13 school year, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of state education data. That means, on any given day, more than 2,300 Mississippi kindergarteners are out of school.
Kindergarten is not mandatory for Mississippi 5-year-olds, although attendance is required for those who opt to enroll, which experts say covers the vast majority of children. Still, state superintendent Carey Wright said the grade is not appreciated enough.
“I think that a lot of families don’t put that value in kindergarten being the first official year of education,” Wright said. “They [the children] are already coming in behind and that is tough to get them caught up, particularly if they are not attending until first grade.”
The absences are leading to both academic and financial consequences in a state where students already lag behind their peers throughout the country, consistently posting some of the lowest test scores in the U.S.
The absences are also leading to students falling behind just as they start their education. One in 14 Mississippi kindergarten students had to repeat their grade in 2008 because they weren’t prepared to move on, according to the Southern Education Foundation.
“It essentially creates a double obstacle,” said Steve Suitts, Southern Education Foundation vice president, noting that the state’s pre-k offerings are meager. “It means that kids who don’t get to kindergarten will be even further behind than the kids who have been.”
State educators worry that even more will be left behind now that schools are using the Common Core curriculum that expects kindergarteners to know how to count to 100, write the numerals to 20 and write sentences by the end of the year.
Plott says parents who know kindergarten isn’t mandatory in Mississippi seem entirely unconcerned about their children missing school, and she has a hard time convincing them to wait on the car line until the school bell rings.
“They’ll say ‘Well, it’s only 30 minutes,’” Plott said. “If they miss 30 minutes four times, that’s two hours of instruction. I’m having a very, very hard time making parents understand, making them value the importance of having their kids here every day.”
In addition, when students don’t show up, schools lose money, as state aid is determined by average daily attendance. Plott was forced to let go of four teachers in kindergarten through second grade last year. With fewer instructors in the classroom, class sizes at Neshoba Central have increased; kindergarten class sizes grew from about 18 or 19 students last year to an average of 24 or 25 this year.
Kyle Snow, director of applied research at the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC), said there are “a whole string of negative consequences,’’ for students who are chronically absent from kindergarten.
“Not only do they tend to perform more poorly on any assessment you’d give them in kindergarten, but it tends to follow them through into third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade,’’ he said. “There’s even some indication of a greater rate of dropping out of high school. These are long term, lasting implications.”
Lack of pre-k hurts
Mississippi offers so little in the way of state-funded pre-school (less than 6 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds are served) that many children who arrive in kindergarten have had little or no classroom experience and are expected to gain a host of academic skills.
“Kindergarten is, for many kids, the entry point into formal education,” Snow said. “It’s their first time in a structured learning environment.”
Mississippi’s kindergarten absenteeism is part of a larger trend. Districts in California, Wisconsin, Illinois and Connecticut (a state where kindergarten is mandatory) report some of the highest absentee rates out of all grades.
Nationally, nearly 10 percent of kindergarteners are chronically absent, according to research conducted by Attendance Works and the Child and Family Policy Center – the most recent figures available.
The study found that “chronic absence in kindergarten predicts the lowest levels of educational achievement at the end of fifth grade.”
Gearl Loden, superintendent of Tupelo Public School District, estimates that 10 to 12 percent of kindergarteners do not move on to the first grade in Tupelo because they did not master the appropriate reading and mathematics skills, such as writing a sentence or counting to 100. At Neshoba County Elementary alone, 10.7 percent of the school’s kindergarteners were retained. Jimmy Weeks, superintendent of the Lee County School District, estimates 5 to 8 percent of kindergarteners were held back last year.
The reasons for high kindergarten absentee rates vary. Some Mississippi educators suspect that the communal learning environment leaves children with no prior classroom experience more susceptible to new germs making sicknesses rife.
Plott at Neshoba Central Elementary blames a culture of parents who do not understand how kindergarten has changed – so they don’t hesitate to keep children home, pull them out to visit grandparents or pick them up early.
“Kindergarten is not what it was 15 or 20 years ago or even five years ago,” Loden said. “The expectations are different, and it is eye opening.”
The state’s law does not require school attendance until children turn six — generally the age in which they enter first grade. Two years ago, lawmakers tweaked it so that kindergarteners have the same attendance requirements as their older peers. Now, a student must be present at least 63 percent of the day or he or she is marked as absent.
The change helped, state superintendent Wright said, but it still does not go far enough. She wants to see the law extended to cover all 5-year-olds.
“If you’re not putting a high price on it as a state by saying it is important enough for all children starting at age five and to be in school and to be educated, that also sends a message: ‘It is okay to check my kids out of school or do something else,” said Wright.
State figures are not available for how many Mississippi children do not attend school until first grade. Tupelo and Lee County School District officials said there are very few, maybe a handful each year and most of those have attended a church-based kindergarten. However, they said, even having one student who has not been in a classroom until first grade is too many. Those students require much more one-on-one help than others.
Weeks, the Lee County superintendent, believes some students can enter first grade and catch up — but they will certainly start behind.
“Will they be as successful as a child from the same background who started in kindergarten? I don’t think so because the skills being taught in kindergarten now are so much more important than they were five years ago,” Weeks said. “If a child doesn’t attend kindergarten, they will start behind.”
Flashcards and numbers
On a recent morning at Saltillo Primary School in the Lee County district, kindergarteners in Candace Cherry’s colorful classroom were split into groups. Some sat with a teacher’s assistant, talking about their favorite part of a story they had just read together. Others traced words like “see” and “my” in a tray of salt while viewing flashcards on the table.
After a few minutes, Cherry rang a bell signaling it was time to switch groups. Students stood up and hurried to sit in their tiny blue chairs at the next station.
Students at Saltillo are doing the same things as their Philadelphia counterparts – learning letters and counting numbers. Attendance rates are better in the Lee and Tupelo city school districts, both located in the same Northeast Mississippi county.
“The amount of things we are teaching them has increased and we are teaching them faster,” said Cherry. “They can fall behind a lot more easily.”
Ken Smith, principal of Saltillo Primary, said the school has created policies that ensure kids are in school all day, every day.
Even though parents often arrive early to pick up their kids in the car line, they are discouraged from checking them out until class is dismissed. Throughout the school, the attendance policy is posted on the walls.
In Tupelo, Saltillo and Philadelphia, schools tie rewards to attendance in an effort to promote attendance. Parkway Elementary in Tupelo recently sent students home with a flyer that outlined a reward called “Coupon Corner.”
If a child is present for an entire school week from 7:45 a.m. to 2:50 p.m., he or she gets to pick a coupon and redeem a reward like wearing pajamas to class or eating lunch outside with a friend.
In Philadelphia, teachers offer students with perfect attendance pizza parties and field trips to playgrounds as rewards. This means no late arrivals, early checkouts, or missed days.
Kindergarten teachers have also increased communication with parents. Each spring, Neshoba County hosts an event where parents and prospective students tour the school and talk about what they’ll learn.
Tera Embry, a kindergarten teacher at Neshoba Central Elementary, uses a stamp program in her classroom – each day a student comes to school, he or she gets a hole punched in a stamp: when there are 20 holes, they can pick a treat out of a “goodie box” loaded with candy.
At Tupelo’s Parkway Elementary, teachers call parents when children are absent to explain what they missed. During parent-teacher conferences, parents receive data to highlight where their student is excelling or struggling.
Veteran kindergarten teacher Robin Carruth says communication is particularly important for parents who have never enrolled a child before.
“If you have a first-time kindergarten parent, they may not understand the importance [of kindergarten].” Carruth said. “They say a lot of times, they didn’t realize what was required.”
Early childhood education—including kindergarten – boosts a children’s social, emotional and behavioral development and decreases the likelihood a student will be held back of have to retake a class, a growing body of research shows.
“This is not babysitting, this is like first grade.” Embry, the kindergarten teacher said.
“Your child has to read before they can get out [of kindergarten]. I don’t think [parents] really understand the change that we’ve had over the past few years.”