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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.

Related: Mississippi finally funds statewide pre-K — but only for six percent of its youngest learners

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.”

Kindergarten teacher Haley Stewart teachers reads to her students at Parkway Elementary in Tupelo, Miss. (Adam Robison, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal)

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.”

Related: Private pre-k programs trying to fill gap in Mississippi

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.

Related: Cramming for Common Core: one Mississippi school district has to make big changes in limited time

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.”

Kindergartner Beth Capperman writes sight words in a tray of salt during a literacy lesson in Candace Cherry’s classroom at Saltillo Primary. (Photo: Lauren Wood/Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal)

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.”

Related: A solution to lost early childhood opportunities in Mississippi?

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.

Related: After years of cuts, states investing in early education again

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.”

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Kayleigh Skinner is a graduate of The University of Mississippi. During her time at Ole Miss she contributed regularly to the school’s publication The Daily Mississippian and city newspaper The Oxford...

Letters to the Editor

16 Letters

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  1. Yes! Children must be able to read before graduating from kindergarten.
    And, as “king,” I would impose another requirement before graduation to 4th grade. All students must know their times tables to the “12’s” before moving into 4th grade. Common Core methodology or not. A test at the beginning of their 4th grade year (would give them something to do for an hour a day on summer vacation), pass or it’s back to 3rd grade.

  2. I live in a State where pre-K isn’t compulsory but there are a lot more slots offered than in Mississippi. Lower-income children are supposed to get the slots first but many of their parents don’t bother to sign them up. I live in a low income neighborhood and my daughter is the only pre-k aged child in this neighborhood who is going this year.

    I thought that she was starting way ahead of the other children since she can count to 30 (and make a good stab at counting to 100) and is also starting to read but she’s actually about average as far as the class goes. She’s head and shoulders beyond many of the other 4 year olds in the neighborhood. Since she’s in pre-k, she’ll continue to advance but they aren’t gaining many new skills.

    I really don’t see how kindergarten is going to work next year. She, her classmates, and many other children who are enrolled in pre-k programs will be reading and writing whereas other children will be starting without even knowing their colors or having ever had a book read to them. They will almost need two different kindergartens.

  3. I’m in Tn. At the preschool/preK part of the Elementary school, they’ve got problems with kids being picked up before noon. Now honestly the parents are told they can pick their children up after 12 noon, because all major learning is done before then, but some parents try picking them up before then. I let mine stay the whole school day as I got a break. Kindergarten is mandatory here. Your child has to go before first grade. Some parents are making their child wait til 6 or 7 years old to go to kindergarten, though, to give them an edge, and some parents are putting children 1 yr apart in the same grade like they are twins. So children tend to be at the mercy of their parents/guardians on how school works out.

  4. Most MS schools(not all) only care about the numbers that get the schools free funding. Where I live(in MS) the school has decided that teachers can decide to have final exams. In other words a class that has barely passing students can just pass the students without testing them for learning the teachings of the teacher. For two years the local high school only taught what was believed to be on the mstat(?) and still failed the testing. Sorry if the test name is wrong. Didnt have that back in my day. ASFAB and ACT was what We had to do good on. Anyway, in todays world its ok to be stupid as long as the schools get free money.

  5. My daughter has missed more than six days of school and they threaten us, but she’s sick. I’m not sending her to school with a fever or when she needs a Nebulizer to breath. If more parentes kept their kids home when they’re sick, maybe my little girl wouldn’t miss so much.

  6. Perhaps some schedule conflicts exist for the working parents or carpooling parents. Perhaps the “early pick-ups” are due to the parent’s “mandatory” work schedules along with childcare schedules and that they must also pick-up other children from the middle and high schools that aren’t conveniently located near the
    Kindergarten/Pre-K classes. And please don’t forget that “schools exist to serve parents and their children” and not the other way around. When schools are ready to solve the issues…..they will. Survey the parents. Charge some fees which will serve as an incentive to send their kid to school regularly. Test which kids need the most help and are also at risk for being absent and work with them more, in c lass. Aloow the school social worker/counselor to help. Above all “be super friendly.” Many parents had very negative experiences in school, as children and fear the same for their kids. Let them know that you are an advocate not a blamer, shamer, or accuser! Just do it! Pretend like you were trying to convince your child to attend school daily.

  7. The kids would probably be much better off if they avoided kindergarten and preK although and were taught by the mothers at home. I remember being bored to tears in kindergarten, where they had ridiculous rules like you weren’t allowed to “read ahead.” I’d been reading and writing little stories and poems from the age of 4.

  8. This story is so lame. Give me a break. By the time the parents are attempting to pick up these children the teachers have long b/4 dropped any pretense of teaching these kids. I have been to schools for various reasons over the years especially in the late weeks of the year and find them outside in the nice warm sun playing not doing anything in the class room. The federal govt. mandates the number of days a year they attend but the school system and the teachers can and do quit teaching about the time spring break is over. It is all down hill from there. I was amazed that my 7th grade grandson came home with a math problem that required him to give 1/3 of something to each of 4 friends. When the teacher was confronted by him she told him to just divide 4 into the total number, telling him it was not about the correct answer but the way he tackled the problem. HUH??? A 7th grade algebra teacher. Our system is terrible with a lot of dummies and lazy people teaching the children. Fix that instead of writing a dumb story like this.

  9. I was a very fast learner in school – but was not ready to read in kindergarten. I was advanced in reading by first grade. Some kids brains just are not wired to read that early.

  10. Maybe the problem is what they are expecting from Kindergarten students. When you have inappropriate for age requirements, you can expect a lot of kids to fail.

  11. Maybe we need to re-evaluate what we expect 5 year olds to learn, honestly, reading, writing sentences, counting to 100, among other horror stories I have heard from “common core” makes me wonder if this country has lost it’s mind. We need to study other countries that are higher achieving than we are and see what they are doing differently (I guarantee you it’s not all about economics or family involvement)
    I was happy when my Daughter was born in January, meaning she wouldn’t go to school until closer to 6, I did consider regardless of when she was born keeping her out of school until 6, not to “gain an edge” but allow her to mature more and be more ready for the learning environment.
    I also think we need to stop giving “pre-K” to only those families that are financially deficient, it should be available to all families so that their kids start off on a better footing.

  12. It’s a shame that parents don’t realize how important time in the classroom is for children.

  13. Many kids who start school at 5 years old are NOT ready to be in school all day. Some kids aren’t ready for that until at least 1st or even 2nd grade.

  14. It is no wonder Mississippi is at the bottom of all 50 States, since Kindergarten is optional and only 63% attendance is required.

  15. It haunts me to think that one out of 14 kindergarteners in Miss. will be retained. How cruel!
    Educators know that Common Core makes unrealistic demands. The CCStandards for their reading program are flawed and those Standards are being pushed down to the kindergarten level. Researchers know that retention is harmful. We know that waiting until children are developmentally ready for activities will be more assurance of children succeeding. Yet, people in power are indifferent to the welfare of our children. The account of kindergartners retained because they can’t meet the inappropriate standards saddens me. I ache for the children who are mentally and emotionally abused. Just this week we heard about the five year old girl that was whipped to death because she soiled her pants. People in power are just as cruel when whipping to death children’s self- image by forcing tasks upon them that they are not ready for and then punishing them with retention for not succeeding. It is like pouring salt down their throats.
    A few years ago a Harvard Newsletter listed numerous studies that revealed that retention is harmful – like a death of a parent one researcher stated. If a child is not mentally challenged, then he/she will learn how to read if it is taught appropriately. Marie Clay’s approach to teaching reading to emergent readers has been proven successful. Marie Clay with her Reading Recovery, believed in giving all the support a child needs so he/she would not make a mistake. She utilized reasoning skills along with utilizing all the senses. A happy environment, freedom to explore, confidence, a feeling of success, a challenge that can be met, hands on, and modeling were all very important to Marie Clay. Common Core is indifferent to the affective realm, to the child’s feelings, and has caused the Common Core Syndrome – child abuse. RR provides one- to-one tutoring, five days per week, 30 min. a day. The teacher begins instruction using the child’s words. RR is supplemental to classroom instruction and lasts an average of 12-20 weeks. A child is discontinued when he/she manifests evidence of being able to use unprompted strategies to read increasingly difficult text and independently write their own messages. Some people say the Reading Recovery program is too expensive. For crying out loud stop the high stakes testing and use that money to provide appropriate instruction.
    Reid Lyon’s approach is flawed – some children including adults can not learn via phonics. How can children in Mississippi learn via phonics? Do children from regions with heavy accents and various dialects have to learn via the unspoken language like the Chinese way and then translate text into their vernacular? We are compounding their task. Children have an unnecessary challenge in trying to learn through phonics – trying to decode words via Standard English and then translate into their accent or dialect language. It is like learning another language – Standard English in lieu of what they speak. Contrived and meaningless sentences compound the task. There is a single spelling across dialects that pronounce words very differently. The pretense that learning to read is anchored in a single set of phonics rules is not only confusing, it damages children’s chances for school success.
    Just yesterday my grandson in kindergarten said under his breath when he was with his grandfather at the library, “I don’t like kindergarten.” His grandfather asked him to repeat what he said and he quickly responded, “I like kindergarten.”My grandson knows that he is expected to like kindergarten. His teachers are fantastic but they have no control over the curriculum handed to them.

    My grandson reads titles and is interested to a point; he asks what some words are and what they mean; but he is not interested in mundane sight vocabulary adults impose on him. He is not committed to learning to read meaningless sentences that the teacher sends home. My grandson is not interested in reading run off black and white photo/zerox copies of booklets with contrived sentences. The stories that the parents are requested to have their children practice “barking at words” is of no interest to my grandson. It is taking away time he wants to do interesting activities: build with legos, play with trains, tell his own story as he draws…He has no interest in writing with a pencil – too much effort has to be exerted to control it. He loves to be challenged – but with a challenge he can meet with success such as building with legos. He loves the challenge of following directions and putting sets together by himself – sets geared for 6 to 12 year olds. He has an uncanny ability to find pieces and places them where they are suppose to go. If his grandfather wants to help him he pushes his hand away. He has great confidence, “I can build anything.” It is that confidence that we must build up in children if we want them to succeed to reach out to learn more. Among other things that captured his imagination was planting seeds. He wants to plant seeds and watch plants grow. He saved his apple seeds thinking he could plant them now in the harvest time of year.

    Why doesn’t he want to read those booklets placed in that shoebox? (Oh the time, energy, money, and paper wasted!) What I have observed so far about those contrived stories bought home is that each story revolves around a sight word or a math sentence.

    For children who have no books at home, run off books are better than nothing and reading ebooks are a good substitute if there is a computer in the home. The booklets, however, should be meaningful – stories the children dictate. Pre-k and now in kindergarten wastes so much valuable time in trying to get the children to memorize the alphabet and sight words. The songs my grandson comes home with are songs that adapt a well known melody to spelling a sight word. The children can’t escape boring, meaningless activities. There is no need to memorize sight words -syntax and familiar context along with the initial letter make the sight vocabulary words easy to predict. The alphabet and sight words learned over time via intriguing stories, stories that tickle the funny bone, rhymes, poems, and shared writing stories are far more easy to remember.

    My grandson knows that real stories worth his time, are encased in hard bound delightfully illustrated pages- stories he can talk about and that stir his imagination. The kindergarten curriculum today doesn’t appear to work at developing the imagination and curiosity. Albert Einstein maintained, ” Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” Margaret Mead purported that “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

    Basic for John Dewey was developing critical thinkers by starting with the child in relationship to the curriculum and ending with the child – applying information to the child and to his/her environment. The child comes with experiences and interacts with the environment. Through interaction adjustments are made and learning takes place. Learning isn’t the mind taking a picture and then reproducing it. It’s not a mechanical process e.g. when children memorize – give right answers.
    Information and knowledge are on the lower range of Bloom’s taxonomy. John Dewey maintained that the imagination is the greatest. “Every great advance in science has issued from a new audacity of imagination.” Dewey maintained, “Information severed from thoughtful action is dead, a mind-crushing load.” Yet Common Core ignores the importance of the imagination.

    When will state politicians ever learn? The Common Core standards have to be thrown out and we either resort back to what we had or start from scratch with the child in mind and not money. “Time” magazine hasn’t a clue what teaching is about. Why doesn’t it write about the harm the CC is causing; how it squelches teachers’ sensitivity and creativity and forces them to act against their conscience. 10/28/14

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