Chronic absenteeism includes  excused absences, unexcused absences or suspensions.

Mississippi ranks in the top 20 of states with high percentages of chronically absent students, the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education shows.

Nationally, these numbers are high, but Mississippi comes in 19th out of the 50 states and Washington D.C. with 17.2 percent of students counted chronically absent – slightly above the national rate of 16.4. That data was taken during the 2015-16 school year, and  2017-18 data from the state’s own education department shows not much had changed since then, with the statewide average at 17.1 percent.

The data gives insight into other absentee trends, such as white students chronically missing school at a higher percentage than black students.

A student has to miss 10 percent of the academic school year –18 days – to be considered chronically absent, said Toni Kersh, the Mississippi Department of Education’s Bureau Director of Compulsory School Attendance Enforcement.

As a nation, we’ve been so focused on truant students – those that have been unexcused – and we forgot about the other kids missing the same amount of instructional time … so we’re looking at it from a holistic approach now,” Kersh said.

Chronic absenteeism includes all reasons a student would be missing from school – excused absences, unexcused absences or suspensions.

Within the state, Monroe County School District has the highest rate of chronic absenteeism at 34 percent, and Leflore County School District has the lowest at 6 percent.

There isn’t one particular cause that usually leads to chronic absenteeism, and educators have to look into the root cause to figure out why a student is continuously not at school, Kersh said.

“’It’s going to have to be a team approach and so you want to have your classroom teachers, your counselor, your curriculum specialist, your interventionist, depending on what you have in your school,” Kersh said. “You want to pull in all of those people, you want to look at each child individually.”

While chronic absenteeism deeply impacts a student’s education, it can also result in a loss of funding for school districts.

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP, is the formula the state uses to determine funding for public school districts. A large chunk of the formula is determined by average daily attendance. This method captures attendance on any given day in the first few months of the school year, and students must be present for 63 percent of the school day to be marked present.

Critics argue using this method instead of a school’s average daily enrollment is not an adequate way to fund them.

“What I tell people is we have to get away from looking at the money outcomes and all that and focus on the child. What’s the actual impact on this child? We have to really just start honing in on the kids,” Kersh said.

She also noted that because that snapshot is taken at the beginning of the year, most districts shouldn’t be negatively affected.

“Unless you have a whole bunch of kids that are chronically absent within the first month or two of school, really it wouldn’t impact them that much,” she said.  

Kayleigh Skinner contributed to this report 

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.