Mayor Muriel E. Bowser chats with students at Jefferson Middle School in Washington. She visited the school on the first day of the semester to tout a citywide attendance initiative. (Perry Stein/The Washington Post)

District Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and city leaders touted an initiative Wednesday aimed at boosting low attendance records as students returned to school after a nearly two-week holiday break.

Bowser and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson emphasized to students at Jefferson Middle School in Southwest the importance of showing up to school each day as part of Every Day Counts! — an initiative launched at the start of the school year that coordinates across city agencies to get students at their desks on time each morning.

"What we have learned is that too many kids are missing too many days of school," Bowser said in the school's cafeteria.

The public push comes amid heightened scrutiny of chronic absenteeism in the school district.

WAMU and NPR reported in November that Ballou High School in Southeast awarded diplomas to seniors who didn't meet graduation requirements and that a majority of the school's 2017 graduating class missed more than six weeks of school. Twenty-five percent of public school students in the District — about 18,000 students — have missed 10 percent of all school days, rendering them chronically absent, according to data provided by the city.

Wilson said Wednesday that middle school is a critical time for students, and educators need to reach children before they enter high school. By sixth grade, chronic absenteeism is linked to dropping out of high school, according to statistics provided by the Every Day Counts! initiative.

"This is an important time to connect with students," Wilson said. "They are starting to think about what happens beyond middle school and high school."

City leaders said Jefferson Middle, a predominately black, low-income school, has been able to keep families engaged with the school. This academic year, staff made home visits to more than half of students' families, with plans to visit each student's home. Principal Greg Dohmann said when a student is absent for a single day, a staff member will send a text message to a family member to check on the student.

On an annual survey of the school system, 96 percent of students said they felt their families were welcome at the school. Engaging parents is a large component of the Every Day Counts! initiative.

Despite progress in family engagement, Jefferson Middle has struggled with student attendance. Twenty-two percent of students were truant during the 2016-2017 school year, recording at least 10 unexcused absences — an increase from 12 percent the previous year — according to data from the school district.

Bowser, Wilson and Jennifer Niles, the city's deputy mayor for education, also honored 25 Jefferson students Wednesday who clocked a perfect attendance with no tardies during the first semester of the school year. Students received tickets to a Wizards basketball game.

Seventh-grader Jamal Mungo said he hasn't missed a day of school in his academic career. Each morning, he gets a ride from his mom or takes the Metro from his home in Congress Heights to Jefferson Middle, about a half-mile from the Waterfront Metro station. Some days, he's responsible for dropping off his younger sibling at an elementary school near his home.

The 13-year-old, who wants to be a professional football player, says he never hits snooze on his 7 a.m. alarm and encourages his siblings to strive for perfect attendance, as well.

"If I don't get good grades, I won't be successful in life," Mungo said.