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One in 10 kindergarten and first-grade students misses a month of school a year, according to Attendance Counts, a new organization formed to combat chronic absences. For the youngest children, absences are often excused, so no one notices until it’s too late and the student has fallen behind. Frequent absences can be particularly problematic for poor families because those children already face an uphill battle in school.

The Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland recently spoke with Hedy Chang, the founder and director of Attendance Counts, a national and state initiative dedicated to advancing school success by reducing chronic absences.

Hechinger Report: When we talk about school attendance problems, we usually picture teenagers hanging out on a corner skipping school, but you’re finding that the problem is deeper than that.

Chang: That’s absolutely the image that most people have in their heads. We typically think about attendance challenges being about truancy. These kids, of their own volition, are out on the streets, not going to school. But in fact attendance is really about, is the kid in school or not? There’s a much broader variety of reasons why kids aren’t in school. Particularly at young ages, it’s not truancy. It’s not like a kid is out on the streets and know one knows they’re not at school.

We’ve found that when you look at chronic absence, which includes looking at the combination of excused and unexcused absences for any reason, you have kids even starting in kindergarten – one out of 10 kids – who are missing 10 percent or more of school. There might be unreliable transportation, they’re moving around because of unaffordable housing, they don’t have access to health care so they may have a chronic disease and that’s keeping them home. The problem is that regardless of why a kid is missing school, they’re not in school and they’re not learning.

Hechinger Report: How does it affect academics?

Chang: There’s a lot of research now that suggests that you have up until third grade to learn how to read. After third grade you have to read well to be able to learn. Going to school doesn’t always guarantee that you will learn how to read and do well. But not going to school for low-income kids who don’t have the resources to make up for lost time in class certainly is a good predictor of not doing well in school.

Hechinger Report: Are kids who are missing school in kindergarten dropping out later on?

Chang: We don’t yet have a longitudinal data system that allows us to go from kindergarten all the way to drop out. What we already do know is that [Baltimore] had a cohort where they looked at sixth grade all the way till 12th grade, and they noticed that by that time, if you were chronically absent at 10 percent, there was already a much greater likelihood of dropout. If you were excessively absent, missing 20 percent or more of school, over half the kids were dropping out by the time they reached 12th grade. There’s a high correlation.

So how should schools and districts respond? Listen to Chang explain.

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Sarah Garland oversees editorial planning and budgeting, edits K-12 stories and manages editorial partnerships with other news outlets. She has worked at Hechinger since 2010, and before that wrote about...

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