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Editorial: Attendance is crucial for even the youngest students

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

– Woody Allen

For most youngsters, the foundation of a good education starts in kindergarten. Build that foundation right, and students’ chances of success throughout their school years are vastly improved. But, as Woody Allen says, you have to show up.

Recognizing the importance of regular attendance at all grade levels, Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Raquel Reedy has made attendance a top priority this year and kicked off a yearlong initiative to get “every student in class every day.”

But parents’ realization of the importance of good attendance needs to start in kindergarten.

Many parents think of kindergarten as extended day care and do not make it a priority, Reedy says. Attendance numbers bear that out. Kindergarten has the highest truancy rate of any of the elementary grades in APS. About 17 percent of APS kindergartners had 10 or more unexcused absences during the 2016-2017 academic year and, if you count both excused and unexcused absences, the number is much higher. The truancy rate for fifth-graders was just under 14 percent – still high, but lower than kindergarten.

Why is kindergarten attendance so important? A 2011 California study found that 64 percent of students with good attendance in kindergarten and first grade could read at grade level after third grade, but only 17 percent of students who were chronically absent in both grades could do so.

While kindergarten is often fun, it is also serious learning time. Students are taught crucial fundamental concepts as they advance through the grades. And if they learn the habit of good attendance early, it’s easier to maintain in later years.

Poor attendance through all grades, according to a 2014 report from Attendance Works, is four times more likely among low-income students – the ones with the strongest need for class time to boost their math and reading scores. And the further behind a student gets, the less likely he or she is to graduate.

To combat that, APS has adopted recommendations by the nonprofit Attendance Works that are designed to get kids to show up. Those include educating parents about the importance of attendance, letting them know quickly when attendance problems arise, and addressing any barriers that are preventing students from making it to school.

Whittier Elementary in far southeast Albuquerque has had impressive success employing those, and other, best practices – including sending text messages to parents at 6:45 a.m. each morning to remind them to get their kids ready for the school day.

At first glance, that seems excessive. Isn’t that the parent’s responsibility? But it’s hard to argue with success.

Last year, Whittier students’ chronic absenteeism rate was 27 percent. This year, it’s 7 percent.

The school also passes out hygiene kits to students to help reduce illnesses and the resulting absenteeism.

APS has a new three-tiered attendance program with increasing levels of support, including student attendance plans and parent outreach. The district’s Attendance Promotion and Truancy Prevention Unit provides technical assistance, coaching and professional development to teachers and administrators.

If APS can replicate its successes at Whittier – and convince parents that pre-K and kindergarten are where their kids set themselves up for education failure or success – good things lie ahead for the district and its students. After all, showing up is more than half the battle.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.