Voices from the Field: Hedy Nai-Lin Chang

“It turns out that attendance matters as early as preschool in high quality programs.”
Interview with
Hedy Nai-Lin Chang
Executive Director
Attendance Works

Hedy Chang

by Senior Policy Advisor Steven Hicks

Hedy Nai-Lin Chang directs Attendance Works, a national and state level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absence. Deeply committed to promoting two-generation solutions to achieving a more just and equitable society, Hedy has spent more than two decades working in the fields of family support, family economic success, education and child development. In February 2013, Hedy was named by the White House as a Champion of Change for her commitment to furthering African American Education.

Steven: How did you begin your work in Early Learning?

Hedy:  I began my career while I was at California Tomorrow, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping schools, public agencies, communities and families ensure equal opportunities to succeed while drawing strength from our ethnic and linguistic diversity.   While the work focused on California, we also worked nationally since the demographic changes we were experiencing were soon being felt everywhere.   I focused on early childhood programs because this was the first time many young children had the experience of being cared for by someone outside their family and in some cases, interacted with other adults and children from other backgrounds.  I sought to ensure this would be a positive experience that helped strengthen a child’s and family’s sense of identity while also equipping them with the ability to appreciate and negotiate differences.  I still draw upon much of what I learned from that research on best practice and policy in early childhood programs in the work that I do today on chronic absence.

Steven: In what way is the issue of chronic absenteeism a factor in improving outcomes for young children in preschool through third grade?

Hedy: It turns out that attendance matters as early as preschool in high quality programs. Research shows that preschoolers who miss 10 percent or more of the school year – in excused or unexcused absences – arrive at kindergarten without the school readiness skills they need.  If they are chronically absent in more than one year, they are less likely to read proficiently by the end of third grade, and more likely to be retained in elementary school. Absenteeism affects all children, but its impact intensifies among children whose families lack the resources to make up for lost time.

Steven: Why is the President’s initiative, Every Student, Every Day, important and what do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities?

Hedy:  This is a huge opportunity for many reasons. The release by the Office of Civil Rights of the first ever national data set is a wake-up call letting us know that because too many students are missing so much school, they don’t have an equal opportunity to learn. At the same time, the My Brother’s Keeper Success Mentor Initiative offers a concrete example of how schools and communities can work together to use relationships to motivate daily attendance and help students and families overcome barriers to getting to school, especially if we adapt the concept to work with our youngest students as well as address the needs of those in middle and high school.   Equally important, the national summit, held on June 9th and 10th, created a fabulous opportunity for state teams to learn about how communities and states across the country are beginning to successfully tackle the issues. Given the opportunity to weave attention into ESSA implementation, state action is especially essential.  The challenge is making sure that the growing awareness of chronic absenteeism results in prevention and early intervention rather than in blaming families and adopting punitive responses.