Fort Myers/Lee County, Fla.

For information about similar programs, see our Early Education page.

Every morning, the children in the Lee County, Fla., Head Start programs sing a song to their friends — not just the friends sitting with them in a circle, but also to those children who didn’t make it to class that day.  They wish them a speedy recovery and a quick return to the preschool program.

The circle time song is one of several approaches that Lee County programs are using to instill the importance of attendance in their youngest students and to keep attendance rates well above the national average for Head Start. The school readiness rates for children leaving the programs also surpassed the district and state averages, with gains persisting through the third grade.

The high attendance rates begin with securing a commitment from parents to stress daily attendance, visiting homes, tracking absences regularly, and bringing parents in for conferences when attendance is flagging.

“What we’ve found is the more universal approaches you put in place, the fewer targeted efforts you need later,” Becky Yance, a social worker in the county’s Early Childhood Learning Services division, which serves nearly 1,000 students at 30 sites in and around Fort Myers.

The first step is to meet with parents to sign a participation agreement.  Program officials stress that Head Start is not a drop-in program for parents to use when it’s convenient.  Nor is it a school program with mandatory attendance.  It’s a school readiness program that works best when kids are there every day.  Parents agree to make regular attendance a goal and call in when a child is sick.

Teachers and social workers visit the homes to get a sense of the family life and social dynamics.  They build a relationship with the family so that the parents trust the staff enough to share problems that might be keeping kids from getting to school.

At school, teachers track roll electronically so the data can be monitored for each child.  The teachers are all trained in Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline, which emphasizes routines, structure, and problem solving.

For children, the attendance message begins the moment they arrive in class.  Teachers, social workers and administrators turn out to greet the children every day.  Each child gets to choose the type of greeting they receive from the teacher:  a high-five, a hug or an “alligator,” for example.  The greeting, the circle time song, and other approaches show children that they’re wanted at school and missed when they’re absent, Yance said.  Children who have perfect attendance for a month receive certificates.

If a child has too many absences, the teacher is the first to reach out to the family. “It’s not a nag,” Yance said, “more like ‘we miss you when you’re not here.’”

If the absences persist, the parents are asked to come in for a conference.  They are shown an attendance calendar that displays their child’s absences and asked about any issues that need addressing.  The Head Start team’s connections to community services, and the trusting relationship they’ve built with the families, can often help turn around a problem, Yance said.

“We’ve already built a relationship with people,” she said.  “Whatever the issues are, we’re already dealing with them.”

Revise May 2011