SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – The Sioux Falls School District has a new way of keeping students in class.

The district received a $1.5 million grant from the South Dakota Department of Education to address chronic absenteeism in schools. They have used that money to hire six attendance liaisons to work with students and their families.

“We’re really trying to work one to one with each of these families to say, ‘Okay, what is it that’s impeding your child from getting to school? Let’s see what we can do to address that to make sure it does not continue to be a hurdle for your child,’” James Nold, the assistant superintendent for the district, said.

Nold said they looked at all the schools in the district to see where students were absent the most and would need additional support in getting to school. Attendance liaisons will be present in Whittier and George McGovern middle schools and Terry Redlin, Garfield, Hayward and Hawthorne Elementary. 

According to Nold, chronic absenteeism is when a student misses 17 or more days of school, which is 10 percent of the school year. 

“If someone is missing two times a month, they’re going to hit that,” he said. “There’s a significant decline in achievement when students are missing that amount of school because they just fall behind their peers.”

The liaisons work with students by giving them rides in the morning if they miss the bus and connecting their families with resources for food, hygiene, finances and transportation.  

“Relationships are probably the most significant factors in student attendance,” Nold said. “We wanted people who could go to those homes and build relationships with those families to make sure we get those kids in school.”

Suzannah Reaves is an attendance liaison at Whittier Middle School and a large part of her job– after she’s helped get students in the classroom for the day– is creating activities and programs encouraging students to keep up their attendance. 

“To us, it’s not just about them being within school parameters,” Reaves said. “We want to find out about what things and activities our students like. Just different kinds of things that we can involve our students in that really promotes them wanting to come to school.” 

She’s helped start a bike club at Whittier and hopes to bring in a yoga instructor later this year. The attendance liaisons also took students to help paint the downtown mural. 

“We had the kids help participate in that so they can feel ownership and partnership and build relationships skills that they may or may not feel like they have,” Nold said. 

Nold said the district noticed a decline in attendance after the pandemic as some students got into a habit of not attending class multiple times a month. He said they’re trying to change the message that was spread during COVID from “When in doubt, stay home,” to emphasizing the importance of kids going to school. 

“We know that if they go and get a further education, their ability to graduate from high school is greatly enhanced,” Nold said. “This will provide them so many more opportunities to get a very meaningful job and increase their pay so they may not be stuck in some of these same situations.”