SDP Fellow in the News: How Data Helped Head Start Centers Tackle a 'No Show' Problem

June 19, 2018

Education Week Article By 

What do you do when you build a preschool class—but many of the children never show up?

That's what happened at the Head Start program overseen by the Community Action Project of Tulsa in Oklahoma, or CAP Tulsa for short. In September 2016, 135 preschoolers—fully 20 percent of the program's Head Start population—never appeared at the start of the school year, even though their parents had enrolled them.

CAP Tulsa, as it has often done in the past, turned to data both to figure out the problem and devise a solution. And in doing so, it provided an example of how all of Head Start's 1,600 grantees are now expected to infuse data into their decisionmaking and continuous-improvement processes.

CAP Tulsa offers care and educational services for newborns through preschoolers. But for 4-year-olds, there's competition. Parents have the option of staying with Head Start or enrolling in preschools offered by the Tulsa school district or local charter schools.

Using Data to Spot Trends

To better predict the program's enrollment, Cindy Decker, CAP Tulsa's director of research and innovation, and her team built a statistical model. The model found some common elements among no-shows: They had an older sibling in elementary school, suggesting parents may want their younger child in a preschool at the same building for convenience; they were new to the program that year, or they were not receiving behavioral or disability supports—children with those needs tended to stick with CAP Tulsa, Decker said.

Armed with that information, staff members started asking parents over the summer about their plans, Decker said, paying particular attention to families who had factors more likely to make them no-shows. CAP Tulsa also connected with the district and with local charters to find out if the same children were popping up on their rolls.

A year later, the number of no-shows dropped from 135 to 99—still a lot, Decker said, but the decrease meant less churn in the first weeks of the school year.

"And we also heard that this helped with some challenging behaviors," she added, because teachers were able to focus on instilling classroom routines, she said, rather than adjusting to new children enrolling well into October.

This is just one of many ways CAP Tulsa uses data to drive its program, Decker said. "Data helps us identify the problems that need to be fixed, and the successes we should celebrate," she said.

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