Montgomery County, Md. has won national recognition for prekindergarten programs that have helped develop literacy skills for many low-income children. What’s not as well-known is the extensive effort the school district makes to instill good attendance habits in its youngest students.

Careful attention to attendance data, structured intervention when students miss too much school and a safety net of services for families have helped school officials keep attendance levels high, even before school attendance is mandatory. The county’s chronic absence rate in elementary school is 4.2 percent, compared to 6.2 percent statewide.

Making the right connection at this early stage is vital, says Janine Bacquie, the district’s director of the Division of Early Childhood Programs and Services. “This is really the first time when families are engaged with the schools,” she says.

Montgomery, which includes some of Washington D.C.’s wealthiest suburbs, is also home to a swath of poor neighborhoods that stretches through the center of the county. A growing immigrant population has helped make minority students the majority in the school district.

The county offers both Head Start and prekindergarten classes, with full-day programs available to children living below the federal poverty level. All the classes use a research- and standards-based curriculum in conjunction with the Head Start approach for wraparound and family services). The programs emphasize social and emotional development, as well as academic skills. Each classroom is assigned a family service worker, who conducts with home visits and meetings with parents before the program to set goals for the coming year.

The school district employs several strategies to make sure children show up for class regularly. It provides transportation for early education programs and offers breakfast and lunch. “We also try to make sure this is a fun program, so they don’t want to miss it, so they will be the ones to bug their parents to come,” Bacquie says. That means field trips, hands-on learning experiences and other enrichment activities. Schools offer incentives, such as breakfast with the principal, for students with perfect monthly attendance.

The parents are part of the effort, too. They’re invited on field trips, encouraged to become leaders through a  Head Start and Pre-K Policy Council and provided translation and interpretation services when needed.

Montgomery also looks closely at attendance data, reviewing weekly enrollment in the program and sending monthly reports to principals at the school site. Most schools have grade level team that hold biweekly, meetings called “data chats”  to look at overall trends and target struggling children. Given the higher mobility rates among some low-income children, the district enters attendance data into a central database that can be accessed when a child moves from one school to another.

When absences occur in preK, there is a prescribed process for dealing with them:

  • Three days in a row: a teacher will make a call to the family. If there’s no response, the teacher will alert the family service worker.
  • Five days in a 30-day period: A letter will go to the child’s home in the appropriate language.
  • Ten days in a month: A family service worker will visit the home and try to determine the source of the problem.
  • Persistent absences: A social worker from school district will set up a meeting to determine if the family is making an effort or is facing a serious barrier to attendance, such as homelessness or illness. The family may be asked to sign an attendance contract.

In most cases, Bacquie said, a call or letter will resolve the problem. Sometimes, if the family is going out of the country for an extended period of times, the district will work with them to ensure learning continues. If parents need additional help, the early childhood division social workers will help connect family with community services they need. The district also has parent education workshops and a hotline that parents can call.

“We’re really trying to provide a very heavy safety net around families – with lots of support, services and interventions,” Bacquie says.

Updated December 2011