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Kentucky educators confront possible consequences of poor school attendance in college and beyond


Kentucky education officials have been celebrating recent college enrollment gains, as an indicator of the strength of the state’s workforce. They include Dr. Aaron Thompson, President of the Council on Postsecondary Education.

“We know that 90% of the future jobs in Kentucky we’ll create have to have a postsecondary credential that matters,” said Thompson at a Team Kentucky update in January.

However, many educators argue that before celebrating college enrollment, Kentuckians need to ensure their kids show up to the elementary or high school classroom.

Students are considered chronically absent when they miss 17 or more days- one tenth- of the school year. According to Kentucky’s Teacher Advisory Council, about 30% of students were chronic absentees last school year, double the rate pre-COVID, and 37% of low-income students missed school regularly. The drastic rise is getting noticed.

“Now, we’re getting that national recognition for chronic absenteeism that we haven’t before,” said Denine Sergent, Officer of Pupil Personnel at Rowan County Schools. She works directly with parents through conferences and home visits. Sergent emphasized there is a massive difference between chronic absenteeism and truancy, when students miss three or more days unexcused.

“Families, they will say to me, ‘Why are you here? My kid has all excused absences.’ Yes, I understand that,” said Sergent. “I’m not here for truancy issues, I’m here because your kid is chronically absent, and we talk about the impacts that could have on their education potentially throughout their life.”

40% of Rowan County students were chronically absent last year, while just 22% of the student body was truant.

Once they reach graduation, students have to choose between pursuing postsecondary education or immediately entering the workforce. Low-income students, again, are hard-hit. The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education reported that despite overall growth, low-income college enrollment has fallen by about a quarter since 2018.

Heidi Neal is Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management at Morehead State University.

“Students can go out and they can get a job out of high school. Although, in not understanding the benefits of a four-year college degree, they can see that immediate paycheck piece, which is becoming more enticing.”

Neal said universities across the state, especially regional schools, are working harder than ever to recruit and retain students - many of whom were chronic absentees as well as virtual learners. April Nutter, Director of Strategic Communications at M-S-U, said the transition for these students entering college has gotten rockier.

“Maybe [they] didn’t get some of the preparation, but also some social skills. Maybe they weren’t comfortable saying, ‘I’m struggling.’ For faculty, you’ve got to be more attuned to that and more aware. But on the other side, there are some students that I think are more open about mental health issues and personal health issues,” said Nutter.

The Kentucky Department of Education has kept an eye on the issue, recently receiving recommendations from the Family Partnership Council. They focus on establishing connection between students and their school community; including by developing local webpages suited for communication and engagement, as well as working closer with local educational agencies to help officials and parents navigate the education system.

Meanwhile, Denine Sergent with Rowan County Schools said getting students in the classroom early on is the most critical step.

“Every time a kid misses school, we are creating a gap in their learning. And that’s the conversation I try to have with parents,” said Sergent. “There are studies out there that show that kids who are chronically absent in kindergarten or first grade, they are at a greater risk of being considered at risk for not graduating high school.”

So far this school year, officials said Rowan County Schools have lowered their absentee rate to less than 10% and aim to keep this ball rolling and empower the newest generation with an effective education.