Local school districts join 2024 Attendance Summit

Published 11:32 am Thursday, April 4, 2024

By Jay Compton



Representatives from the Bell County, Middlesboro and Pineville school districts were among the 250 educators from 22 eastern Kentucky districts who participated in the Attendance Summit 2024 – Addressing Our Attendance Crisis at the Corbin Technology Center last week.

Students who miss school more than 10% of the time are considered chronically absent. That means they are on pace to miss over 17 days during the school year. The number of students who fall into that category has risen dramatically since 2020. The summit focused on why kids aren’t coming to school and ways to address the problem.

Bell County Superintendent Tom Gambrel says when students don’t come to school, they can’t learn. Educators know this scenario creates a lifetime of barriers for families that expand generationally, even spilling over into local economies as fewer are prepared for college and the workforce.

“Good attendance is perhaps the most crucial element of student success,” Gambrel said. “Nothing can replace the learning that occurs in the classroom each day. In addition, attendance prepares students for the workforce by building habits like discipline and responsibility.”

Kentucky Department of Education data shows that in 2020-21 Bell County’s chronic absenteeism rate was 27 percent. Since that time that number has increased by double digits and for the 2022-23 academic year it was 40 percent.

Increasing empty school desks isn’t just an issue for the Bell County School District. Chronic absenteeism is increasing at an alarming rate in Kentucky and nationwide.

The KDE data shows that Middlesboro Independent School District has gone from 25 percent in 2020-21 to 52 percent in the 2022-23 academic year.

“The attendance summit served as a vital platform for districts to come together, pooling insights and resources to tackle the root causes of chronic absenteeism,” said Jamie Johnson, Director of Pupil Personnel and Chief Academic Officer for Mddlesboro Schools. “While health-related absences are understandable, chronic absenteeism extends beyond these issues. Building robust home-to-school partnerships with our families is key to overcoming these barriers and ensuring every student has the opportunity to succeed.”

The Pineville Independent School District has made strides in reducing absenteeism. Despite progress, the district acknowledges that there’s still room for improvement. While absenteeism decreased from 65 percent in the 2020-21 academic year to 53 percent in 2022-23, Pineville remains committed to further enhancing attendance rates.

“Six members of our Pineville Independent Attendance Committee joined the PRI Attendance Summit in Corbin,” Pineville Superintendent Russell Thompson said. “This meeting provided an invaluable opportunity for our team to collaborate on crafting a tiered plan to support students grappling with chronic absenteeism. As we press on with our efforts to enhance attendance, we’re deeply grateful for the unwavering support of our families and community.”

The Appalachian Educational Service Agency (AESA) was strategically created in 2020 during the height of the pandemic to bring superintendents together with intentionality to design creative solutions to better support students and their families to increase academic outcomes.

Last week the AESA activated its over 22 school districts to discuss the issue of chronic absenteeism. Although each district has been working to solve this issue, Harlan Independent Superintendent C.D. Morton, the AESA chair, says they can solve big problems by working together across city and county lines.

“In my 32 years of public education, it is the first time we have joined together around a single initiative this important in our region,” Morton said. “AESA’s leadership to plan, implement, and facilitate an event of this magnitude is a true testament to the commitment to see all students succeed.”

The AESA is part of the Appalachian Cradle to Career Partnership, a group of over a dozen organizations working to improve economic mobility in Appalachian Kentucky. Partners for Rural Impact provides backbone support for that partnership and the AppEd Service Agency.

Sherry Horner oversees the Partners for Rural Impact’s Data and Evaluation team. She said the Attendance Summit this spring is only the beginning of a larger strategy for solving chronic absenteeism. Her team will continue to gather and find the story behind the data on each of the participating school districts.

“This marks the inception of a deliberate year-long strategy,” she said. “In November, we plan to reconvene with all districts to exchange insights on what’s been effective and what hasn’t. This sets the stage for robust cross-district collaboration, allowing us to delve deeper into our collective planning for the next 6-9 months.”

The Attendance Summit was led by Hedy Cheng, the founder and executive director of Attendance Works, a national and state-level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absence;  and Senior Fellow Susan Liberman. Liberman launched and directed Count ME In, a statewide nonprofit program partnering with school districts and community organizations to address chronic absenteeism in Maine.