As educators incorporate best practices, utilize new projects in certain subjects, and incorporate innovative techniques into their lessons, one constant remains: you can’t teach students who don’t attend. Truancy is an evolving issue in South Dakota’s schools. State lawmakers are working to pass legislation to change state law regarding penalties for being out of school, and school leaders are using every tool they can find to convince kids to class.
A snapshot from schools offers a glimpse into the major themes that challenge consistent attendance and what educators are doing about it.
"Any of the frailties in society you can find as frailties in the public school, because we’re a reflection of the society that we serve," Huron School District Superintendent Terry Nebelsick says. "Therefore, whether it’s the dysfunction of truancy or whether it has to do with poverty or children feeling loved or welcome, there’s a direct connection with their background, how their parents felt about school or how their parents felt about society, and how they grew up. And the way that you change that is to try to break down those barriers and have kids feel cared about and driven and challenged."
Nebelsick says those issues show up in multiple forms – including truancy, a problem where students don't show up. More than half of Huron School District students are minorities, and its schools are becoming more diverse. Nebelsick says parents decide whether being in class is a priority.
"Most of our families that come from all over the world are very, very faithful in attending – very faithful. They see school as the opportunity to learn English," Nebelsick says. "Kids can come from all over the world, but they know that English is the language of work and prosperity and culture and pop culture, all of those things, so there is a huge drive in our citizens from across the world to be in school."
Nebelsick says Huron has about 700 high school students and 20 of them are rarely at school. He says part of that problem started years ago.
"Parents must make it a priority when they’re K-6, so that students will make it a priority when they’re in high school," Nebelsick says.
"A five- or six-year-old, they’re going to do a little more as Mom or Dad says. They may have a little anger in some of that, but they’re going to do moreso," Jamie Nold says. "But you get to a 17-, 18-year-old, they feel that they have some freedoms that that younger child does not."
Nold is Assistant Superintendent for the Sioux Falls School District. He says those freedoms include a car or the ability to decide how to spend time when parents are at work. The latest numbers show more than 3,600 students in Sioux Falls don’t meet the district’s goal of attending school 94 percent of the time.
"When you look at privilege per se or a higher economic status, those parents know the value of education and know that education has helped them to be in the position they are to be in the job that they currently are holding," Nold says. "Without education, they wouldn’t be able to have that job, more than likely. So because of that, the parent influence on, the family influence on, ‘you need to go and get your education, you need to take that part seriously’ does have a very positive impact. Parents are vitally important in this whole process."
Yet Nold says he sees some parents – and their students – struggle. He says parents in low-income households often work many hours, so they don’t or can’t help kids practice their skills or foster a love of learning at home.
BULTENA: What are you doing to positively reinforce that attendance is good or helping to break down those barriers where kids wouldn’t want to show up because it’s embarrassing or they couldn’t get their work done because home life is bad or, or, or the car broke down again? How do you fight that?
NOLD: Quite a few of the schools are doing a positive message on that as well. We would do drawings every week where we’d draw of kids that had perfect attendance for that week and we’d do drawings out of there and announce them on the intercom with the students that come down to get gift cards, and our community would help to give those because those were all donated booster clubs or community members.
Some people don’t think schools should bribe students to show up, but Nold says educators provide rewards or accolades like business leaders do for employees. He says people respond well to positive initiatives. Still Nold says those advantages are not enough.
"If we have to in the legal sense, we use the processes that are afforded us with the citation process, issuing tickets. If they’re not in school, much like you would get a traffic ticket, you can get a citation for truancy, and eventually that could lead into probationary status or things like that," Nold says.
"The best thing about the citations is that that gives the courts and the judges the knowledge that there have been several interventions, including citations, that have been offered before it gets into the court system," Nebelsick says. "The reality is, though, that, until parents and other adults grab ahold of that we have to make to make attendance a huge priority, we’re going to struggle if we’re not going to incarcerate students. And most of us don’t like the idea of students being incarcerated. We just wish there was a way to get them to school."
The Huron superintendent says no one action can solve South Dakota’s truancy problem.
"Sometimes we try to search for simple answers to complex questions. Humanity is complex – whether it’s drugs and alcohol or physical health or mental health or some disease that they’re fighting or family background or genetics or location or children that have come from refugee camps and watched their brothers and sisters or their parents be killed or children who have ridden on the top of a train while their parents desperately tried to save their life from oppression in Guatemala," Nebelsick says. "There are no simple answers to the complexity of taking the next generation of children and getting them safely to adulthood ready to contribute."
Both school leaders agree that it takes work from everyone in a community to keep kids in school so they can learn and gain the skills that support them through the rest of their lives.
Administrators say they want to foster welcoming environments so kids feel like they fit in. They emphasize options for breakfast and lunch to satisfy students’ appetites and simultaneously their attendance. In Sioux Falls, they also utilize programs that help kids who are homeless get to school by sending taxis to pick them up and bring them to class where they know friends and trust the teachers who create stable environments.
Additional content: A graduate of the Sioux Falls School District made a commitment to attend high school everyday. Wilson Kubwayo was a teenager when he came to the United States from Africa as a refugee. He says that willingness to show up helped him learn English quickly, prepare for college, and seek an MBA while running his own business. His discussion with Cara Hetland is contained in the audio file above.