From Early Drop to Early Warning

SDP Fellow Kathryn Black headshotSDP Fellow Kathryn Black helps reveal the barriers that keep preschoolers from attending the first day of school in Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma, every four-year-old child has the opportunity to attend public preschool—but that doesn’t mean they do. Though a trailblazing state in its adoption of universal pre-K, Oklahoma’s institutions still struggle with the classic enrollment and retention issues plaguing many in the early education space. This poses significant logistical and instructional challenges for Head Start grantee organizations like CAP Tulsa, which provides early education services to 2,200 children from birth to 5-years-old. CAP Tulsa identified what they coined as “early drops”—children who enroll but don’t show up for the first day of class—as a significant hurdle to the success of the state’s low-income pre-K students. After a three-year increase in the number of early drops, SDP Fellow Kathryn Black sought to understand this challenge and help implement a number of interventions that ultimately decreased the number of early drops by 27% the following year.

“Teachers spend a lot of time prepping their classrooms and plans prior to the first day of school,” explains Black, “and when students don’t show up, it creates significant challenges for not only their instruction, but even the basic structure of their class.” The school’s leaders and staff get thrown too, for they’ve planned to support the success of their students by staffing onsite social workers, stocking food and supplies, and securing the per-student funding they receive through Head Start. Because of these early no-shows, members at all levels of the organization must scramble to backfill slots and catch newly-admitted students up on any missed instruction later on.

Black’s first move was to use both qualitative and quantitative data to understand what was motivating these early-drop situations. Using a systemic approach, she unearthed the challenges for those absorbing the impact of early drops as well as the circumstances that lead up to a child not attending the first day of school.

“Oklahoma’s policy of universal Pre-K creates options for students,” explained Black, “and because families have options, families seek them out.” Through her research, Black identified several factors that contributed to families seeking other options or not showing up for their first day of school, and rolled those factors into an early warning detection system, along with three other interventions to bolster first-day attendance.

“We really learned why families decided to send their children somewhere else,” Black explained. “Many times, the family’s decision was grounded in logistics. When the Pre-K student had an older sibling who already attended another school, the family could cut down on transportation/travel by sending all of their children to the same school instead of choosing to enroll with CAP Tulsa. In this way we teased out that those children with an older sibling in elementary school significantly affected whether that preschooler would withdraw.”

This early warning system identified seven predictors of a first-day no show, with the top predictors being that the child’s older sibling attended another school and the child had not attended CAP Tulsa’s 3-year-old program the year prior. These predictors then informed a number of interventions to capture a family’s intention to attend the organization’s Pre-K program.

“Since our policy was to automatically enroll any child enrolled in our 3-year-old program directly into our Pre-K program, we started to ask and capture whether that family intended to continue on with CAP Tulsa earlier,” offered Black. Through phone calls, surveys, and partnerships with local districts, CAP Tulsa was able to identify those who did not intend to return as well as those children dually enrolled at multiple schools.

After conducting her analysis and implementing a number of data-informed interventions, CAP Tulsa decreased the number of early drops in the 2017-2018 school year by 27%. As a result of this work, the organization’s staff was able to shift their attention from re-filling slots toward other important tasks. “Here we are in 2019,” reflects Black, “and we’re still utilizing these interventions to better serve our students. This work has allowed us to focus more on the tasks that help support student learning and success.”

Lessons from Oklahoma

Perhaps the two greatest takeaways from Black’s project in Oklahoma stem from community collaboration. First, partnership with the community proved to be vital element to both understanding and preventing early drops. Synchronizing the efforts throughout the organization and reaching out to outside organizations that may be experiencing the same issue can streamline interventional efforts. Additionally, engaging with those stakeholders that potentially have the greatest understanding of the issue—in this case, parents and teachers—can cut down on misunderstandings and inform which interventions to implement.

Though Oklahoma and other universal pre-K states have removed the financial barrier to preschool for families with 3- and 4-year olds, Black’s work shows that’s not enough to ensure kids will actually show up. Educating children in their early years requires partnerships to ensure that programs are funded properly, teachers and schools are adequately prepared, and families are ready for and present on the first day of school. It also requires a strong data strategy to track and uncover insights and help ensure all children access high quality care.


Kathryn Black is the Research and Innovation Manager at CAP Tulsa.