South Dakota Allocates Millions to Tackle Chronic Absenteeism

According to Joseph Graves, the Secretary of Education in South Dakota, student absenteeism is a major issue in public education in the state.

During the 2022-2023 school year, the rate of chronic absenteeism among South Dakota students rose from 14% to 21%. This increase was even more significant among Native American students, whose chronic absenteeism rate jumped from 31% to 54% in the same period.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as a student missing 10% or more of school days within a year.

It is well-established that attendance and academic performance are closely linked.

“School is how we bring kids to understand their role in the world. You can’t educate kids who aren’t there,” said Graves, emphasizing the importance of education in achieving the American Dream.

In an effort to address student absenteeism, the South Dakota Department of Education is providing millions of dollars in grants to school districts over the next three years. These grants will support research-based programs.

‘Doesn’t feel right’: Some schools with significant Native American representation miss out on grants

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened absenteeism in South Dakota’s school districts.

“The pandemic put education as a lower priority over other issues,” acknowledged Graves. “This realization led to a decline in attendance rates among students.”

The recovery process is taking longer than anticipated, both nationally and in South Dakota. Certain demographic groups, including Native American children, Hispanic or Latino children, and economically disadvantaged children, are experiencing even greater challenges.

Sioux Falls, along with eight other school districts, including Pierre, Wilmot, Waubay, Sisseton, Watertown, Mitchell, Leola, and Spearfish, will receive a total of $1.5 million over the next three years to address absenteeism. The specific amounts allocated to each district vary.

Sisseton has the highest proportion of Native American students, accounting for 54% of the student population, according to enrollment reports from the Department of Education in 2023. Waubay and Wilmot have Native American student populations of 34% and 22% respectively. All other grant-receiving schools have Native American student populations below 20%. School districts with a predominantly Native American student population, such as Oglala Lakota County, Todd County, and White River, did not receive grants.

Roberta Bizardie, the Superintendent of Todd County School District, expressed surprise and disappointment at not being awarded a grant. The district has a chronic absenteeism rate of 40% and a student body that is 94% Native American. Bizardie plans to collaborate with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s truancy department to reach out to families and increase engagement in the absence of grant funding.

The district was informed by the Department of Education that the grant was not awarded due to unclear line-item expenses listed in the budget, according to Bizardie.

While Native American students tend to have higher chronic absenteeism rates and lower academic achievement compared to other groups, Graves noted that these trends are closely associated with socioeconomic status.

Among demographic groups, addressing low socioeconomic status is of utmost importance, according to Graves.

Graves expressed interest in private educational programs that are closely aligned with Native American culture and language, calling it a “small renaissance” in Native American education. He hopes that public schools can observe and draw lessons from these programs in order to better serve their students.

Districts spend grants on transportation, mentoring & engagement

The student absenteeism grants are funded by the federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act of 2022. The awarded districts will be required to report on their progress at the end of each school year until the grant is fully utilized.

The districts awarded grants are taking different approaches to tackle absenteeism, but all intend to allocate funds to transportation, mentoring, or engagement activities to encourage student attendance.

In Sioux Falls, the focus will be on elementary and middle schools with high numbers of economically disadvantaged students. Assistant Superintendent James Nold believes that targeting younger children will allow for early intervention to prevent further decline in attendance and motivation.

Nold believes that education is a crucial pathway out of poverty. By encouraging attendance and providing adequate support through staff and programs, students can be empowered to break free from the cycle of poverty.

Attendance liaisons focus on relationships, mentoring

One common use of the grant funds is the hiring of attendance liaisons or advocates who can establish strong connections with students and families struggling with attendance.

For example, the Sisseton School District has hired Michelle Greseth to implement the “Check and Connect” national intervention program. Greseth’s role involves building relationships between mentors and students. Since the program was introduced alongside an attendance awareness campaign, the chronic absenteeism rate among Sisseton high school students decreased from 26% to 11% during the 2023-2024 school year.

Similarly, Sioux Falls has hired six liaisons dedicated to student attendance and a recovery teacher to assist middle school students who have fallen behind academically. The Wilmot School District plans to hire an attendance advocate to alleviate the burden on their staff. Watertown plans to hire three family support specialists.

Jeff Danielsen, the Superintendent of Watertown, emphasized the importance of a supportive and non-authoritarian approach to encourage attendance. He believes that building positive relationships with students is more effective than relying solely on traditional authority figures such as principals and school resource officers.

Enhancing extracurricular activities

Joseph Graves highlights the significance of involving students in extracurricular activities they are passionate about, such as sports, theater, debate, or student government. He believes that these activities can motivate students to remain engaged throughout their academic journey.

Graves suggests that while not all subjects may appeal to every student, finding areas of interest and engagement can help them navigate their education successfully. He points out that investing in Career and Technical Education and programs like Jobs for America’s Graduates has shown positive effects on attendance and student participation rates.

The Mitchell School District also plans to invest in extracurricular activities through their “Kernel Club” program. Superintendent Joe Childs intends to expand the range of activities available, including more sports, performing arts, and visual arts opportunities to address the district’s 18% chronic absenteeism rate.

Graves and education officials aim to bring chronic absenteeism rates back down to pre-pandemic levels through targeted interventions and support. The hope is that the strategies implemented in Sioux Falls will prove successful enough to continue beyond the three-year grant period.