Student absenteeism is one of the biggest problems facing South Dakota public education, said state Secretary of Education Joseph Graves.

Chronic absenteeism among South Dakota students jumped from 14% during the 2018-2019 school year to 21% during the 2022-2023 school year. That increase is more pronounced among Native American students, whose chronic absenteeism rates jumped from 31% to 54% in the same timeframe.

Chronic absenteeism is when a student misses 10% or more days of school within the school year.

Attendance and academic performance are directly correlated.

“School is how we bring kids to understand their role in the world. You can’t educate kids who aren’t there,” Graves told South Dakota Searchlight. “The key to the American Dream is a great education. If you get a great education, you can go anywhere in life.”

The state Department of Education is handing out millions of dollars in grants to school districts over the next three years to address student absenteeism through research-based programs.

Recovery is taking longer than expected — both in South Dakota and nationally, Graves said. Some demographic groups are faring worse than others — including Native American children, Hispanic or Latino children, and economically disadvantaged children.

Sioux Falls will be awarded $1.5 million over the next three years to address absenteeism. The district was one of nine to receive awards, including Pierre, Wilmot, Waubay, Sisseton, Watertown, Mitchell, Leola and Spearfish — all at varying amounts.

Out of the school districts selected, Sisseton has the highest representation of Native American students at 54% of its student body, according to 2023 enrollment reports from the department. Waubay and Wilmot’s student bodies are 34% and 22% Native American. All of the other schools receiving grants have Native American student populations lower than 20%. School districts that serve majority Native American student bodies, such as Oglala Lakota County, Todd County and White River, were not awarded the grants.

Read the full article about chronic absenteeism by Makenzie Huber at The 74.