December is a rough month for attendance among kindergarteners at Los Angeles schools where winter sick days and extended family vacations take their toll on learning, perhaps more than parents of the young students realize.
Families may think kindergarten absences are no big deal, but early education experts say the earliest school grade is a critical time when the foundation is set down for later academics. When children have too many absences, they can fall back and not fully catch up, opening the door to behavioral and academic problems down the road.
Additionally, school districts are funded based on daily attendance. They receive a set daily rate from the state based on the number of days that students are present and accounted for. Chronic absences can add up to a lot of money lost for already struggling schools.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District as elsewhere, high absenteeism is often linked to poverty; the issues can be intractable and long-term.
“Chronic absence is a serious problem,” said Debra Duardo, director of student health and human services for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “It's not just a problem in LAUSD or even in Los Angeles, it’s a national problem that we need to address.”
Duardo and her staff track the kids who are absent in kindergarten as well as in higher grades. The attendance data shows that missing days in kindergarten predicts truancy in later grades, negatively impacting students' learning and jeopardizing their chances of graduation.
“Chronic absence is particularly detrimental to our youngest students and those students growing up in poverty,” she said. “We know that it lowers our English Language Arts (ELA) and math test scores in later grades and that students that are chronically absent are [at] much higher risk for dropping out of school.”
The youngest learners are not doing any better nationally. About one in 10 kindergartners misses 10 percent of the school year – or about 18 days on average, according to data from the 2010-2012 Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.
Missing that many school days early on can derail a child’s later learning.
A 2008 report from the National Center for Children in Poverty found the children who had missed more than 10 percent of kindergarten were the lowest achieving group in the first grade.
Closer to home, researchers in California found in 2011 that the gains from preschool education may be diminished by poor attendance in kindergarten, even for children who had strong skills going into kindergarten.
Why do children miss kindergarten? Columbia University researchers at the National Center for Children in Poverty found multiple reasons. “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,” their report states.
Low income, low attendance
The research mirrors the experience of Lenicia. B. Weemes Elementary in South Los Angeles, a LAUSD school with particularly low kindergarten attendance. The majority of students there come from low-income families. Over the last few years, the school has struggled to get its kindergarteners to show up consistently, according to Hugo Villavicencio, the man who was brought in to try and improve attendance.
“Looking at last year’s attendance data there were only 48 percent of the students reaching 96 percent or better of attendance,” Villavicencio said. Ninety-six percent attendance equals to no more than seven days of absences for the entire school year.
It’s the district’s goal for all students.
Villavicencio is Weemes Elementary’s attendance improvement counselor and his main task is to reverse the dismal attendance of the school’s youngest learners. He is based at Weemes three days per week, and his job is equal parts motivational fun-guy for the students and coaxing enforcer for slacking parents.
He uses prizes, trophies and peer pressure to help motivate kindergarten students to attend school every day. To cajole parents, he makes daily calls and sometimes visits their homes.
(Listen to the audio below for a sample of Villavicencio's day.)
Poverty is a big reason children miss school, said Villavicencio. The school district understands this, and puts on events to boost attendance where students can get free clothing and backpacks.
Villavicencio recently took a group of Weemes kindergarteners to one such give-away event. “It’s everything from underwear to socks to everything that a child might need to come to school: clothing, shoes, backpack, jacket,” he said.
Villavicencio learned early on that when parents can’t afford decent clothes for their kids, they may keep them home out of shame.
One kindergartener's mother, who Villavicencio had been trying hard to reach after a series of absences, came to his office on a recent Friday. Zaida Ayala's son started kindergarten on time, but almost immediately began missing days.
Ayala said she lives far from school and she doesn’t own a car. “I don’t have transportation, I would always come on bike to come drop him off in the mornings…and right now the bus [fare], it went up,” she said.
Ayala said she’s looking for a job. She is 26 and didn’t finish high school. She worked in housekeeping before her children came along, and she’s been applying for jobs at department stores as a shelf stacker. But it’s a hard market out there, she said. Once she has a job, she can buy a car. But in the meantime, she has to rely on relatives and friends to help drop off her son.
Villavicencio understands her challenges, and listens sympathetically. Ayala says it's her son who helps motivate her to get him to school. “Every time he wakes up in the morning he’s like, 'I’m ready to go to school,'” she said.
Learning is impacted
It’s important that her kindergarten students arrive at school every day so they don’t miss important lessons, otherwise they can easily fall back, said Maria Ramirez Waight, a kindergarten teacher at Weemes Elementary.
“When [students] miss just one day, and they miss the sound of the day or the letter of the day, you have to constantly go over the things they are missing to try and catch them up,” Waight said. “You’re playing catch-up with certain kids all year long.”
Waight offers the example of a concept that all kindergarteners must learn: sequencing. Grasping what comes before something and what comes after something, and putting numbers or letters or a story in the correct order is complex for kindergarteners, she said.
Waight teaches sequencing in the week before Thanksgiving, and uses the first Thanksgiving story as the basis for her lesson. If students miss just one day of the week-long instruction, it's hard for them to catch up on their own. Listen to Part 1 of the audio feature for Ms. Waight’s lesson on sequencing.
Janel Umfress, a Los Angeles learning specialist, has spent decades working with young children who struggle in the classroom. She’s seen up close how kindergarteners can encounter problems should they fall back.
“If learning has gone awry,” she said, “it’s definitely going to impact the social aspects and the emotional aspects because a child can turn into themselves. They can become more frustrated and that looks like a poor behavior.”
School financing depends on attendance
Absences hurt students foremost, but they also have financial implications for LAUSD. In California, school districts are funded by the state at a rate of about $53 per student per day on average, according to Peter Foggiato, director of the California Department of Education Schools Services Division.
“If your child is not present at school, then the school district does not get funding for that day,” he said. “The reason why the student is absent doesn’t matter.”
Until 15 years ago, funding was provided for “excused absences” – illnesses and deaths in the family, for example. But a policy change meant districts no longer receive funding for excused absences and these absences can add up for a district.
In the 2012-2013 school year, about 18 percent of all LAUSD kindergarteners or almost 10,000 students were chronically absent. With the help of counselors like Villavicencio, attendance improved slightly last year to just over 15 percent of all kindergarteners.
Nagging, motivating to boost attendance
Mr. V, as students at Weemes Elementary call Villavicencio, begins his daily round of calls to parents of absent kids. He starts with one he’s particularly worried about.
He calls and it’s a wrong number, which is not unusual. Pay-as-you-go phones are common for the low-income families at Weemes, and numbers change constantly.
The exact same thing happens with the next call to the mother of another student — wrong number. So he digs into the school's archived records and brings out a phone number for the student's grandmother. The phone rings.
"This is Mr. Villavicencio, we just spoke on Friday," he begins. The grandmother can't place his name at first, but then remembers what he had told her previously: her grandchild has missed 30 days of school.
Grandma doesn’t know where child's mother is either, but she promises to look for her. "Thank you very much," he says. "If you can have mom come and meet me at school, I’d like to talk to her."
After Villavicencio hangs up, he stares ahead without speaking. Soon he's bounding into another kindergarten class to deliver yet more words of encouragement.
"Boys and girls, remember come to school every day! 'Bye!"
The students shout back,"Bye, Mr. V!" and the door closes.
Percent of absent kindergarteners