It's a lesson as fundamental as the ABCs: Students can't learn if they don't show up.

Research shows that kids in poverty coming to class can single-handedly improve student achievement. Schools across the Twin Cities offer rewards and mentoring to keep kids in school. Despite all the attention and effort, Minnesota has no clear handle on the hundreds of schools with serious attendance problems.

Now the state is buckling down on efforts to bring those kids back to class and rethinking the way it tracks school success, spurred by a change in federal law. If all goes as planned, in addition to keeping tabs on test scores and graduation rates, Minnesota will pinpoint the number of kids with severe absence streaks starting in fall 2018.

"Research says it's a strong predictor of whether students will drop out, and a strong predictor of a student that may fall behind academically," said Stephanie Graff, the Minnesota Department of Education's chief accountability officer.

The push to refill vacant classroom seats is winning nationally. At least seven other states and Washington, D.C., have made some plan to focus on this issue, called chronic absenteeism.

Minnesota's focus on chronic absenteeism is part of a school improvement plan that will be shipped off for federal approval in September. The plan would identify schools falling short on a combination of student achievement factors, including high numbers of absent students.

One count of state numbers shows that one in 10 kids across Minnesota — many in urban schools — missed roughly a month of school last year, or more than 10 percent of all school days.

"We're starting to see really promising evidence that if you turn it around, we can make a difference," said Hedy N. Chang, who heads up Attendance Works, a national group that has monitored student attendance and urges districts to do so, too. A study using data from the 2013-14 school year found that half of the 6.5 million chronically absent students nationally are in 4 percent of school districts.

Apples and oranges

Supporters of the spotlight on absenteeism include U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who authored an amendment that would have helped principals and teachers receive training to tackle severe student absences.

"When kids stay in school, we see the difference it can make in their lives and the ripple effect it has on the community around them," she said in an e-mailed statement.

There isn't yet a concrete number of absences that separates a chronically absent kid from one who skips school occasionally. Many states in their federal plans are leaning toward counting students who miss 10 percent or more of all days as chronically absent, Chang said. She added that research shows kids at that mark are linked to doing worse in school.

The result: The current data on absent students compares apples and oranges. Minneapolis Public Schools officials presented data earlier this week pinpointing increases in chronically absent students — those who attended fewer than 90 percent school days. In Bloomington Public Schools, the goal is that students attend 95 percent of all school days. In its early outline, the state plans to define chronic absence as students who are absent 10 percent or more of all school days.

Numbers in Bloomington show how the state and school districts need to get on the same page with their absentee data. Minnesota Department of Education numbers show absenteeism is way down in Bloomington, but the district says absenteeism is slightly up. The discrepancy could stem from a few different issues, the Education Department said.

More work to be done

Without a clear state mandate, schools and districts are taking it upon themselves to improve attendance.

Bloomington staff has a three-tiered plan that includes educating the community on keeping kids in classrooms, said Andy Kubas, director of learning supports.

At Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis, a program called Check & Connect targets kids with poor attendance and grades for time with mentors. Mentors might do anything from helping them with organizational skills to picking them up if they miss their buses. Funding for the program has been cut, however.

On a recent evening, families packed the East Phillips Park Cultural and Community Center in Minneapolis as American Indian drummers played in honor of about 70 students who had clinched perfect or almost-perfect attendance for the school year. Ten hadn't missed a single day of school.

Sponsored by a host of community groups and the Minneapolis Public Schools' Indian Education office, the annual celebration cheers the kids who are some of the most vulnerable to chronic absenteeism. About 400 kids districtwide were invited to the party, all identified as American Indian.

Chronic absenteeism among American Indian kids stems from a long-standing distrust of the education system, said Jessica Busse, assistant principal at Minneapolis' Anishinabe Academy, where most of the student body is Indian. The school this year began pairing its routinely absent students with mentors to keep them coming back.

Eunice Deane said she knew how important school was for her granddaughters, two of whom took home high attendance awards that night.

"Anytime they're not in school, they lose out," she said.

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569