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Get your kids to preschool — it matters

Sun-Times Library

Sun-Times Library

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Updated: October 4, 2013 6:07AM

As Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

Excellent advice, we would say, and the importance of showing up starts early — in preschool.

Children who attend preschool are more likely to go to college and earn higher incomes, and are less likely to go to prison or rely on government assistance.

But in Chicago, a new study concludes, children in preschool have a fairly poor attendance rate as a group, and those who don’t show up consistently may be paying a price. Chronically absent preschoolers are less likely to be prepared for kindergarten and less likely to attend school consistently in later grades. Children who consistently miss school in those early grades, in turn — and we know we’re stating the obvious — fall behind academically.

“Chronic absenteeism is rampant among preschoolers in Chicago,” according to the study, conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research in collaboration with the Chicago Public Schools. And the children “most likely to benefit from regular preschool attendance” — the kids who enter preschool with the weakest skills in recognizing letters, counting and such — were the “most likely to be chronically absent.”

The absentee problem is especially serious among African-American children, who are almost twice as likely to be chronically absent than other preschool children — even after accounting for greater poverty among black children.

The irony of this is hard to miss coming on the heels of the nation’s celebration last week of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. A primary goal of the great civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was equal access to a quality education for African-American children. Martin Luther King Jr. and other movement leaders understood that education is essential to social mobility, a sure-fire way to move up. Yet in Chicago it is African-American children before all others who are least likely to attend preschool consistently.

What then can parents, of all races and backgrounds, do for their children? Get them to school. And get them there every day, beginning with preschool, a crucial beginning wrung on the ladder of success.

The University of Chicago study, which followed 25,000 3- and 4-year-olds served by Chicago Public Schools preschool programs, found that almost half of 3-year-olds and more than a third of 4-year-olds were chronically absent during the 2011-2012 school year, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of the year.

The more days of preschool a 4-year-old missed, the lower his or her score on CPS’ kindergarten readiness evaluation, specifically for math, letter recognition and social-emotional development. Equally troubling, children who are chronically absent in preschool are five times more likely to be chronically absent in the second grade.

Why are so many preschool students absent so often? More than half the time, according to the parents, the child is sick. Another 18 percent of the time, the parents said, there were logistical problems, such as a sick family member or siblings with a school day off.

The parents of chronically absent children are more likely to be single and young and in poorer health. They are more likely to rely on public transportation to get their child to school, and to live in neighborhoods with higher levels of poverty.

The solution to the problem in part — and this is largely the purpose of this editorial — is to educate parents about the importance of preschool. The study found that parents who stated that preschool attendance mattered — just as much as when their child was older — were far and away more likely to get their child to school each day.

A more radical solution would be for CPS to go to a full-day preschool program, rather than the current half-day. Many parents say half-day programs force them to find childcare arrangements for the rest of the day, and it didn’t seem “too consequential” if their child missed just two or three hours. But given CPS’ financial woes, moving to a full-day preschool program is not going to happen anytime soon.

Ultimately, the report’s authors say, improving preschool attendance will require “a student-by-student, family-by-family approach,” which is why it’s good to see that CPS was a full partner in this study and already has begun to disseminate the results to preschool administrators and teachers.

Correction Sept. 3, 2013: This editorial has been revised to correct the quotation from Woody Allen.

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