Niagara Gazette

Local News

March 17, 2013

Districts find prekindergarten students among the most absent

Niagara Gazette — BUFFALO — Teacher Hoa Mai is on the phone with a father whose daughter recently missed her 21st day of school six months into the academic year.

"The standards are so high now and she's missing instructional time," the attendance specialist urges while working her way through a list of chronically absent students.

She's begun with some of the most notorious truants: 4-year-olds.

Educators say a district's youngest students are often among those with the worst attendance, in many cases because public preschool is not mandatory and parents regard it as little more than babysitting.

It's a problem that needs to be addressed, experts say, especially after President Barack Obama's recent proposal to expand funding of voluntary public prekindergarten for any 4-year-old whose family income is 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level, a $47,100 threshold for a family of four. He envisions it as a way to close the achievement gap for poor and minority students, improve high school graduation rates and ultimately strengthen the workforce.

That can't happen, educators say, if children don't show up and parents don't see its educational value.

"You really have to sell them on the importance of pre-K and kindergarten: It's not what is used to be," said John Crabbe, the Buffalo school district's attendance services supervisor. "It's so important now in terms of reading readiness and general school readiness."

New York is among the vast majority of states that don't make school attendance compulsory until the age of 6 or 7. Only eight states require attendance at age 5.

"'It's not even mandatory, so why should I send her?' 'Why are you calling me?'" Mai says, reciting responses she gets from parents of frequently absent 4- and 5-year-olds.

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