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The kids missing the most amount of school may surprise you: kindergarteners

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In this country, students are missing an alarming amount of school, a trend that began during the pandemic. And one of the grades where kids are missing the most might surprise you. It's kindergarten. NPR's Cory Turner visited a district in California Central Valley that's doing something about it.

MAYTE RAMIREZ: As you can see, there's a lot. Out of town, back on Wednesday, appointment, ear infection, sick.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: In Livingston, Calif., elementary school principal Mayte Ramirez stands at her desk looking over a list of students who were absent today. It's a Monday, and it's longer than usual.

RAMIREZ: Out of town, out of town, sick, tardy, sick per mom, sick per mom.

TURNER: Ramirez then looks to see who among these kids is now chronically absent. That means they've missed 10% of the school year. She picks a kindergartener.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE TRILLING)

RAMIREZ: (Non-English language spoken).

TURNER: Ramirez says she and her team call families like this regularly. And the parent who answers the phone this time says, no one's sick today. It's just getting to school was a struggle.

RAMIREZ: (Non-English language spoken).

TURNER: Ramirez encourages the parent to bring the kindergartener in now to squeeze in at least a bit of learning, she says.

RAMIREZ: (Non-English language spoken).

TURNER: The pandemic made a mess of school attendance. Nationally, last year, more than 1 in 4 students was chronically absent from school, according to research from the American Enterprise Institute. And in many places, the numbers are even worse for really young students. In California, more than 1 in 3 kindergarteners was chronically absent. And understanding why requires that we put ourselves in the shoes of parents and caregivers.

YOLANDA: Two years ago, my daughter was in kindergarten.

TURNER: One Livingston mom, Yolanda, says she let her older daughter miss a lot of school that year. She wasn't necessarily sick. There were times she just didn't want to go.

YOLANDA: But when she got to first grade, I realized that I shouldn't have because she was struggling with her reading and writing.

TURNER: We agreed to only use Yolanda's first name because it can be hard to talk about absenteeism. She feels badly about how her daughter fell behind. But Yolanda says she also learned from it.

YOLANDA: So now that I have my 5-year-old in kindergarten, I do not let him miss school. So he's only missed one day so that he doesn't struggle like his sister.

TURNER: And experts say those struggles are real.

HEDY CHANG: What we know is chronic absence in kindergarten is associated with not being as likely to read or count proficiently in third grade.

TURNER: Hedy Chang founded a nonprofit initiative called Attendance Works, and she's considered one of the smartest people in the country when it comes to understanding chronic absenteeism.

CHANG: For many families, especially post-pandemic, this is the first time you're actually sharing the responsibility of nurturing and raising your child with another human being.

TURNER: Chang says some kindergarten families don't yet understand how important it is to be consistent.

CHANG: Attendance is a lot about laying down the line and saying, hey, we're going to get my kid to school every day, and I'm going to partner with my teacher so this is both engaging and we have the supports we need. When we have that experience in kindergarten, we lay the foundation for a future.

TURNER: Livingston's kindergarten absenteeism rate is actually much lower than the state average. And part of that success is because staff, like Principal Ramirez, take the time to get to know families. It also means for inexperienced parents, making clear just how important kindergarten is. Missing one day, Ramirez tells them, is like missing three.

RAMIREZ: The day that they were absent, that's a whole day.

TURNER: On the second day, they may come back, she says, but they're so busy trying to catch up, they miss new stuff.

RAMIREZ: On the third day, they're still trying to catch up. So they're missing three days of instruction. And for littles, that's huge.

TURNER: Here's another challenge. During COVID, families were told if your child seems sick, keep them home. Now, though, chronic absenteeism is the epidemic. So schools are telling families, your kids should be here, even if they're sick. It's a big change, says Rafael Bautista, the father of another Livingston kindergartener.

RAFAEL BAUTISTA: Should I send him to school like that, or should I just make sure he's fine, you know? And also when you, like, allergies - I mean, you don't know. Our kids get sick very often.

TURNER: Livingston has a fix for all this confusion, too. And her name came up a lot when we sat down with Livingston families.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nurse Lori.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Nurse Lori.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Nurse Lori.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Nurse Lori.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Nurse Lori.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Nurse Lori, as well.

TURNER: Nurse Lori Morgan is the district's top nurse, and many families have her personal cell number.

LORI MORGAN: Oh, my gosh.

TURNER: And they call her directly when they're not sure how sick is too sick.

MORGAN: I was on vacation last week. I was on the phone and on emails with a dozen parents. Yeah, they were - I'm never really off.

TURNER: In Livingston, Nurse Lori tells families, you don't have to decide if your child is too sick for school. Just meet me in the school parking lot.

MORGAN: You don't even have to get out of the car. We'll come out and check your child out.

TURNER: Nurse Lori, or someone on her team, will take their temperature, ask a few questions. And if they're truly sick, she says, she helps families get a quick doctor's appointment at the local health clinic. But...

MORGAN: Ninety-nine percent of the time, they're well enough to stay. Yeah, they are.

TURNER: Obviously, this helps get more kindergarteners back to class. But sometimes, the problems are thornier, and they can't be remedied with a phone call to Nurse Lori. For these families, Livingston employs entire attendance teams, including Rosa Espindola, a district attendance clerk.

ROSA ESPINDOLA: I'll run and list, and I say, hey, ladies, look who's absent again.

TURNER: She mentions one little boy who stopped coming to school one day.

ESPINDOLA: The reason why is because he lost his grandfather, and he's having such a hard time.

TURNER: Espindola flagged the boy for her principal, counselor and the school's parent liaison. When the family said the boy wasn't feeling up to being in class, the school's absenteeism team set him up with an independent study program. They pulled together homework he could do away from the hustle and bustle of school.

ESPINDOLA: And when the child was ready to come back, he brought his homework. He wasn't marked absent. For the time that he needed to grieve, time to be with the family, time to say goodbye to Grandpa.

TURNER: When the boy returned, the staff told him what they tell every child who returns from an absence - we missed you; you're part of what makes this school special, and we're so happy you're back.

Cory Turner, NPR News, Livingston, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEB WILDBLOOD'S "SKETCHES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.