RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's a lot of attention right now on improving attendance in schools, making sure kids don't miss too many days. That means the littlest students, too. New research shows that if kids miss a lot of preschool, they're way more likely to have problems in kindergarten or later on. At an elementary school in Washington, D.C., Preventing that slide is all about family engagement. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team tagged along with one teacher who is visiting parents at home.
RACHEL WESSLER: Hi. Is Ms. Wise here - Antonette? Hi, mommy.
ANTONETTE WISE: Hi.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Rachel Wessler teaches early ed at the school down the street. She's here at Antonette Wise's house to talk about Za'montae, Wise's 4-year-old son who started out the year in her pre-K class at Burrville Elementary.
WESSLER: You know, I'm a native Washingtonian. I've been at Burrville teaching pre-K for a very long time, and I love it. Would you share a little bit about yourself, Ms. Wise?
WISE: I've been back in D.C. now for about four years. Za'montae is - this is his second year. He's doing good so far.
NADWORNY: This visit is all about feeling comfortable and getting to know each other. Wessler asks about Wise's expectations. What does she want from Za'montae's teachers?
WISE: Just work with him and, you know, be patient with his learning because he's getting it, but he...
WESSLER: Oh, trust me. It's pre-K (laughter).
WISE: Right. He's getting it, but he pulls back. But see, he has an attitude, too, and that is not acceptable. So you still - you've got to patient.
WESSLER: So you expect me to enforce behaviors, is what you're talking about.
WISE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
NADWORNY: This is a two-way street. Wessler can learn about little Za'montae, and his mom can get a feel for the adult that spends the whole day with her son. But there's another reason for this visit. So far, Za'montae's attendance has been good, and Wessler's job is to keep it that way.
WESSLER: I expect that your child comes to school every day...
WISE: Every day.
WESSLER: ...On time, ready to go.
WISE: Properly groomed and...
WESSLER: Yes, yes.
WISE: ...Ready for school.
WESSLER: Ready to learn, yes.
NADWORNY: And research shows that visits like this one are really helpful in keeping good attendance, especially when they're done early on in the year.
WESSLER: We can help Za'montae with everything he needs in order to be successful. We feel very confident. He just needs to be there.
WISE: Yeah, that's the thing, yeah.
WESSLER: Yeah, yeah.
WISE: He's got to come.
MICHAEL KATZ: That's kind of the base work that's done on attendance.
NADWORNY: That's Michael Katz, a researcher at the Urban Institute. He looked at D.C. pre-K programs to try and figure out how schools get kids to show up. He found schools with high preschool attendance had one important thing in common.
KATZ: Connections with families.
NADWORNY: Home visits aren't new. Head Start, the national pre-K program for low-income kids, has always required home visits. But in the last year, schools, directed by the federal government, have renewed their focus on attendance in elementary school. Home visits establish a relationship before there's a problem, and they can open up lines of communication. Here's one thing I heard over and over again.
KATZ: If you don't have a good phone number for the family or you don't know the family, you're working from behind.
NADWORNY: But these visits, they're a big ask for teachers. Wessler usually spends about half an hour with families. Imagine a class of 30. That's a lot of time, and schedules are hard to coordinate. Wessler has been trying to set up this visit with Za'montae's mom since July.
WESSLER: It sounds like you just want him to be successful in all that he does.
WISE: I just want him to be successful at what - whatever, you know, he chooses to do, as long as it's legit and he's going to be OK.
WESSLER: All right, well, thank you so much.
WISE: You're welcome.
WESSLER: Always a pleasure.
NADWORNY: Now that they've exchanged numbers, any time there's a problem getting Za'montae to school, mom just needs to pick up the phone. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington.
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