MINNEAPOLIS -- In a classroom awash with morning sunlight, 25 kindergartners at Marcy Open School in Minneapolis recently worked on a self-portrait of sorts.
Teacher Kilee Chistnagel gave the students paper plates, a few markers and some yarn -- for hair, of course.
Soon these 5-year-olds will start to tackle the tougher work of their first year in school -- some reading, simple writing and the basics of math.
For them, kindergarten won't be filled with naps, playtime and the occasional cookie. Instead, they'll be doing what was considered first-grade work just a few years ago.
But that presents a big problem for Principal Donna Andrews and other education officials in the Twin Cities, who are worried that an alarming number of kindergartners are chronically absent during their first year at school. That's also the case for many pre-kindergarten students.
Aiming to lift students' academic performance in the coming years, the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts are trying to improve the attendance of those younger students.
"The academic rigor, the bar is set much higher for children," Andrews said.
That means it's much more important for students to show up for school. But Andrews said in her K-8 school, the youngest students are the ones most likely to not show up.
"Kindergarten is our grade where we have our highest absentee rate," she said.
Such poor attendance is a problem for the entire district, as 43 percent of kindergartners missed more than eight days of school last year. That includes excused and unexcused absences and is on par with ninth-graders' attendance.
So why do to kindergartners miss school at such a high rate?
Andrews said it comes down to a persistent belief among parents that kindergarten isn't as important as later grades. That may be bolstered by the fact that kindergarten is not required under Minnesota law.
As a result, parents are more likely to take their children out for family vacations or even if the student is tired from a late night.
"It's almost as if we have to help kindergarten parents understand that this is real school now," Andrews said.
That's the idea behind a push by Minneapolis Public Schools to increase attendance for kindergartners.
Jim Johnson, the district's director of support services, said its message to parents about what absences mean for students is fairly straightforward.
"If you miss too many days, you are going to be really having holes in what you know," he said. "Then it starts kind of a downward cycle."
That downward cycle, Johnson said, leads to poor attendance by students in later grades and poor academic scores that persist into middle and high school.
There's a similar effort to improve the attendance of kindergartners in St. Paul, where the most recent data shows that one-third miss more than 11 days of school a year.
The district is extending that effort to preschool as well, where just as many students are considered chronically absent.
Lisa Gruenewald, director of St. Paul's early childhood development program, said the district is asking parents to promise to bring their children to school.
"We actually have a contract now that the parents sign that says they're committed to getting their child to school on time," Gruenewald said.
The push to improve the attendance of preschoolers and kindergartners is gaining some national attention.
Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a group that hopes to improve student performance by reducing chronic absenteeism, said the nation as a whole needs to change the attitude that preschool and kindergarten aren't as important as later grades.
"It's possible it didn't matter as much 20 years ago," Chang said. "But at this point, with the kind of emphasis we have on early academic development and learning to read and write in the early grades, it absolutely matters."
Chang said her research shows that students who attend school regularly in early grades do better academically throughout their time in school and are more likely to graduate.