In the first few years of school, students learn more than the three Rs. They also learn how to interact with adults and with each other. They learn the importance of following through on commitments and finishing assignments on time. They begin to see how the accumulation of skills and knowledge will benefit them in the future.

In that way, early education is the foundation upon which all future achievement is built. And for too many Maine students, that foundation is missing a few bricks.

Elementary school attendance has not been tracked in every Maine school district, but where it has been measured, the results are troubling, particularly because poor attendance is an issue most often with students who are already disadvantaged by other factors, and who have particular trouble catching up once they have fallen behind.

The first step to turning that around is to get a true handle on the scope of the problem.

DAYS LOST

According to research by Spurwink, a Portland-based social services agency, between 4 percent and 8 percent of elementary school children in Cumberland County missed 18 or more days of school – about 10 percent of the school year – during 2010-11 and 2011-12.

In Lewiston, where school officials have been actively addressing chronic absenteeism, 16 percent of pre-kindergarten students and 14 percent of kindergartners missed 10 percent of school days or more last year.

Lacking comprehensive, statewide data, it’s safe to assume that other Maine districts experience the same problems, particularly in areas of high poverty and near-poverty.

Young students don’t miss that many days because they wake up and don’t want to go to school. They miss them because they have to move around a lot, or don’t have access to consistent transportation. They miss them because they or their parents have chronic mental or physical health issues that require frequent visits to the doctor or the emergency room.

And they miss them because their parents don’t see the value of consistent, uninterrupted attendance, often because education wasn’t a priority in their own household when they were children.

But the loss of classroom time, even just two days a month, has consequences. Students fall behind academically and socially. They value education less, and are far more likely than other kids to miss days in later grades and to leave school altogether.

“Poor attendance is often a key indicator of challenges at home and foretells future dropouts and poor workplace habits,” Lewiston’s assistant superintendent, Tom Jarvis, told a legislative committee last week.

SOLUTIONS FOUND

Jarvis was testifying on behalf of L.D. 311, which would allow school districts to lower the mandatory attendance age from 7 to 5, giving school officials the ability to intervene when a pre-K or kindergarten student has too many absences.

That makes sense, as it gives schools the power to step in on behalf of its youngest students before a pattern develops. But for it to be effective, schools have to collect and monitor real-time data on attendance, so they can identify at-risk students and respond quickly.

The schools that do this well are able to engage families as soon as a problem arises, to impress upon parents the importance of their child being in school all day every day, or to connect them to social service organizations that can help alleviate problems related to housing, transportation and health care.

Some schools also have created before-school programs, some of which involve family members, in order to solidify the connection between the school and the students and their families.

That kind of engagement is particularly important at the beginning of the school year, and when a child moves from one school to another, so there is no disruption.

This already happens and produces results in school districts such as Lewiston and South Portland, and statewide through the Count ME In initiative. To pull the under-attending students forward, and help break the cycle of poverty, others have to follow suit.