talking attendance

Most Detroit kindergartners miss too much school. They’ll likely struggle to read later.

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Truancy might bring to mind teenagers skipping class to hang out with their friends or play video games, but in Detroit, it’s the kindergarteners teachers have to worry about.

Almost 70 percent of all kindergarteners in Detroit’s main district miss 10 days of class or more a year, five times the national average for all students.

Parents may think of kindergarten as finger painting and playing games, but missing a large number of days likely means a child will struggle in school. Experts say children who miss too many days are the least likely to be able to read at grade level later on.

“Among poor children, chronic absence in kindergarten predicts the lowest levels of educational achievement at the end of fifth grade,” a report from the National Center for Children in Poverty says.

That’s a pressing issue in Detroit, because in 2020, a new state law will force schools to hold back third-graders who can’t read at grade level.

Research on the effects of missing schools is clear: When a child misses two or more days a month — or in other words, is chronically absent — the absences hurt not only the child’s progress, but also the progress of the rest of the class.

Attendance advocates say the misconception that kindergarten is not important is a major reason parents keep their kids at home.

“Anecdotally, one of the things we hear in Detroit is that many parents of kindergartners don’t necessarily know it’s important to get their child to school every day and part of that might be that it’s not mandated in Michigan,” said Sarah Lenhoff, a Wayne State University education professor whose research is focused on attendance issues in Detroit’s main district.  

An outdated idea about what happens in kindergarten is only one reason parents don’t bring their kids to school. Another is chronic health issues.

When Esmeralda Torres’ 6-year-old son Eduardo wakes up on a school morning at his home in southwest Detroit with swollen eyes and a runny nose — complications from his chronic asthma — she keeps him home.

“Usually I would take him and my other kids to school every chance I get,” she said, “But I wouldn’t feel as guilty not taking him to school in kindergarten.”

Torres’ attitude is not unusual, but kindergarten is no longer all about playtime. It’s about building a foundation for the rest of a child’s school years.

A 2016 report from the University of Virginia found that the focus of kindergarten has shifted from art, music, and free play to “literacy and math content, teacher instruction and assessment.” In national media, kindergarten has often been called “the new first grade.”

A national leader on attendance issues, Attendance Works, has been researching the issue for more than a decade. Executive Director Hedy Chang said families don’t know just how crucial early education, including kindergarten, has become. And it’s especially important for families living in poverty.

“When you’re in school, it’s allowing you to benefit from a literacy-rich, high-quality learning environment,” Chang said. “Kids in poverty are dependent on that literacy-rich environment.

“Their parents are working multiple jobs, and there’s research from multiple places that it has consequences for third-grade reading.”

Last year, only about 10 percent of third-graders in the Detroit district read at grade level. The district has doubled down on getting those scores up, but the updated instruction won’t matter if students don’t come to class.

“We have a view of kindergarten that it’s kind of a nice entry to socialization, but it’s more content and critical learning and families aren’t aware that it can have adverse consequences,” Chang said.

In Detroit, Chang said health issues like asthma are a particular challenge. The asthma hospitalization rates in the southwest Detroit area are almost triple the state average. Eduardo is part of that statistic. Usually he misses class because he is struggling with his asthma.

Even if a child is able to attend, if parents are sick or their car breaks down, there’s not much a kindergartener can do.

A recent study by two Wayne State University researchers found that school-level issues, like teacher-parent trust and discipline policies, can also play a role in whether a child’s parent brings her to school.

Despite the challenges, the issue of chronic absenteeism has been a priority for the prominent education and business leaders who’ve formed the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren. Members issued a list of recommendations for ways to improve Detroit schools in December.

It’s first priority is to reduce rates of chronic absenteeism by collecting more data, improving the school culture, more money for health needs like school nurses, and getting parents invested in bringing their children to school every day.

But the coalition needs the help of other groups to move their plan forward. The Brightmoor Alliance, 482Forward, Urban Neighborhoods Initiative, and the Congress of Communities banded together to form Every School Day Counts Detroit in 2015, a group at the forefront of reducing chronic absenteeism.

They are working in seven Detroit district schools to help track of attendance and inform families of the importance of attending school.

A spokesman for the main Detroit district said it recognizes the importance of attending kindergarten and has “taken an active role in sharing key messages as it pertains to being in school every day through our newly implemented PTAs, newsletters, backpack mail, and automated phone calls.”

Esmeralda Torres may not be convinced. She keeps Eduardo home because she doesn’t believe he’ll be properly cared for. In addition to her son’s asthma issues, he is hyperactive, and she thinks in a classroom of 25, the teacher can’t look after them all.

But in the long run, Chang says the best thing for kids like Eduardo is to still come to class.

“Parents don’t realize what kids are learning in the early grades and how much it’s critical to school success.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear. Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers. They’re hoping that officials in the Devos education department won’t be able to avoid coming to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That puts Michigan on track to become the second state to ask for a waiver from the federal law that requires a child who arrived in the U.S. this year to take a standardized English test within a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.