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Step Forward Head Start shares the importance of preschool attendance

Step Forward is working to improve its Head Start enrollment and attendance in the months following winter break.

Step Forward, formerly known as the Council for Economic Opportunities in Greater Cleveland, is the largest Community Action Agency in Ohio. It serves more than 25,000 families in Cuyahoga County every year and currently runs one of the largest Head Start programs in the state. “We help ensure every child has the opportunity to begin an education right,” Dr. Thea Wilson, Step Forward’s Vice President of Children and Families, said. “We want children to develop a love of learning from the start and be prepared to enter kindergarten.” Experts have said what sets Step Forward apart from other programs is its holistic approach to learning. The agency combines classroom instruction, learning through play and field trips for a rich educational environment that engages children.

“All of our directly operated Head Start centers are five-star rated through Ohio’s Step Up to Quality Initiative, which indicates the centers are excellent at implementing standards for curriculum, technology and kindergarten readiness,” Dr. Wilson explained.

Following its two-week, winter break in December and January, though, the Head Start program has experienced a decline in enrollment and increased absenteeism every year. “We do have some students who enroll with us and attend Head Start through December, but after winter break is over, don’t return to the classroom and we don’t know why that is,” Dr. Wilson said. “They haven’t moved and they haven’t transferred to another program. That’s when our Family Service Workers step in. They do everything they can to follow up, support the family and encourage the parents or guardians so that we can get their child back in an educational setting.”

Data from Step Forward shows a slight decline in enrollment from November to January in previous years. The agency is waiting to confirm enrollment numbers for January and February 2023.

“We want them here,” Inez Owens, a seasoned Site Administrator at George Forbes Head Start Center, said. “When they attend Head Start, Step Forward knows the child is in a safe and healthy environment with consistent caregivers. We know the child is learning, because they’re part of a strategic curriculum. We are confident that the child is eating nutritious food, because we’re providing them with breakfast, lunch and a snack. We also know they’re improving their emotional and social wellbeing because we’re working on developing those skills every day.”

The phenomenon is gaining attention statewide. In Columbus, Kelly Purtell, an Associate Professor at The Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology, continues to analyze early childhood education attendance and specifically, attendance at Head Start programs.


“Head Start is our largest federally funded program that serves families,” she said. “In particular, it serves families who come from low income or an economic disadvantage. A while back, we realized one of the things we weren’t tackling was whether kids are actually there. Obviously, kids get enrolled in Head Start and therefore, in some of these big studies of Head Start but some of the amazing things that happen in classrooms don’t matter if the kids aren’t there experiencing it.” In 2017, Purtell examined data from the Family and Child Experiences Survey 2009 Cohort, which included more than 2,800 children ages three and four. Most of the children were from ethnic-minority households and families who had incomes at or below the federal poverty level. At the end of the school year, the parents reported how many school absences their children had. Purtell found those who were absent from early childhood education did not make the same academic gains as their non-absent friends. She also confirmed students who were absent early on during their education were more likely to be absent throughout later on in elementary, middle and high school. “It’s important in the short-term to help ensure all kids start elementary school off where they should be, but it also has the potential to shape how they do in school in the long term,” Purtell explained. “And then, eventually, whether they have health problems later in life and whether they have a job later in life. These things are critically important for individuals, but they’re also really important on us as a society and making sure that we are helping the next generation succeed.”

In her latest study, published in December 2022, Purtell found there were a multitude of reasons why young students’ attendance waivered at Head Start programs. “An obvious driver is child health,” Purtell explained. “That is the one thing that is consistent across studies of all sorts of preschool and studies of elementary and high school. Health matters.”

Enrollment data from Step Forward does show a significant decline when comparing September 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, to 2022. The organization, like many other early childhood education providers nationwide, has not only contended with COVID concerns, but has also had to battle seasonal viruses that affect children, like flu, the common cold, and RSV. “I think this is a really timely and somewhat urgent problem because all of the challenges have just gotten harder. It’s harder on families now. The health issues have gotten harder now,” Purtell said.

Purtell and her colleagues cited other mechanisms as factors that led to absenteeism, such as economic challenges, stress in the home and a lack of routine.

“When families had more economic struggles, absenteeism went up. When you think about the challenges of not having enough money and trying to make ends meet, getting your child to the classroom becomes a lot harder than if you weren't navigating all those other things,” she said. Alternatively, she found if parents had to work or get other children out the door and to school, preschool attendance was better. “Because as much as Head Start is a program meant to be an enriching environment for kids, it’s also a childcare service for parents who need to work,” she said. Nationwide, preschool is not mandated by law. Purtell – and several other researchers – have questioned whether its voluntary nature allows some parents to view its role in promoting a child’s development differently than formal schooling starting with, or after, kindergarten.


Statistics appear to show the social norms around attendance are, in fact, different for preschool and elementary school. “If you look at data on absenteeism across preschool to grade 12, you see absences are highest in preschool and then, they start they go down in elementary school. They start climbing and kind of peak again at the end of high school,” she explained.


The study, “Why are children absent from preschool? A nationally representative analysis of Head Start programs,” ultimately suggested that attendance improved when parents perceived their children as liking the classroom and when observers rated the classroom as higher quality. Researchers found providing a good, healthy and safe environment to children was a good incentive to get families in the door and to continue showing up for the program, but that centers experienced increased engagement when providing a supportive network within the classroom.

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“It really speaks to trying to build a community as a potential way to reduce absences in the future. Also, working with not just the child, but the family and thinking of innovative ideas to get families’ needs met,” she suggested. “Get them services they need, whether it’s economic assistance like food or electric bills.” “Step Forward cares not just about the child, but our agency makes sure to wrap around the entire family. Our mission is designed to address their immediate needs and then build long-term skills that will help them be successful for generations to come,” Dr. Wilson said. Step Forward has several programs available for Cuyahoga County residents, including early childhood education, a Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), personal development such as counseling, a Baby and Mommy Support program, an anger management workshop and domestic violence program, and professional development that offers educational workshops, job training and employment connection. The services are available at no cost to income-eligible individuals and families. People interested in enrolling their children for Head Start and those in need of other assistance can do so online. “Our message to the community has always been that we’re here to help,” Dr. Wilson said. “Part of being the largest Community Action Agency in Ohio is making sure every child in Cuyahoga County has a high-quality early childhood education experience – and consistency with that - so they can start off on the right foot when they enter kindergarten.”


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