Minnesota program aims to help at-risk students

By Jana Hollinggsworth
Duluth, Minnesota (AP) November 2010

The first time integration specialist Veronica Quillien went to Lincoln/Piedmont Elementary School this year, she was introduced to a student of mixed race.

Quillien, who is black, said the girl clung to her. “She didn’t let go of my hand,” she said. “She saw someone she could identify with.”

All but one of the 12 new Duluth school district integration specialists are black, American Indian or Hispanic. Their job is to work with more than 500 students of color from every grade level who are deemed at-risk because of low test scores.

The hiring of these employees is a new effort to close the achievement gap – the big disparity in test scores and graduation rates between students of color and white students. In 2009, the graduation rate for black students in Duluth public schools was 49 percent and the rate for American Indian students was 34 percent. White students graduated at a rate of 80 percent.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Ron Hagland, coordinator of the Office of Education Equity, which studied the new program with community members and local agencies.

Hagland said he knows of no other school district that has specialists following kids from the current grade through graduation.

Money that paid for magnet school programs in three Duluth elementary schools was redirected to pay for the specialists and their training after years of study showed that magnet programs were failing their goal of integrating children of different races.

The new strategy to close the achievement gap began in September along with several academic programs aimed at raising test scores and graduation rates.

The point is to intensify students’ relationships between home and school, and to monitor attendance and schoolwork. Specialists meet with students, their teachers and their parents with the goal of everyone working together to keep the students on track.

Specialists cite an array of problems hindering academic success for students of color. They say some older students don’t place a high value on their education, and many of all ages lack a solid support system at home. And they say some parents aren’t engaged in their child’s studies because they don’t have transportation or simply don’t feel welcome at schools, shying away from things like conferences because of it.

“What seems like something simple for most people can be very difficult for some parents – just getting there, and feeling comfortable,” said specialist Tamara Smith, who noted that program money is being used for transportation to conferences for parents who need it.

The Duluth program, called Parents and Students Succeeding, is modeled after a University of Minnesota-developed program called Check and Connect, which requires a two-year commitment of mentors. The mentors focus on keeping kids in school and engaged in learning, while monitoring grades and attendance and keeping in close contact with parents. Check and Connect was developed in the 1990s and the Minneapolis school district was used for research, said Kay Augustine, project coordinator at the Institute on Community Integration at the U of M.

Over the past 10 years, the district has seen a reduction in its dropout rates.

“Speaking to its success, Minneapolis has been on grant funding, and now Check and Connect is a line item in the budget because they know the difference it’s making,” Augustine said.

She said what Duluth is doing will create a nurturing environment early on.

“Some research shows we know in first and second grade which children are likely to drop out,” she said. “Most schools are looking at that at the high school level. But by that time, a lot of these kids are already severely disengaged.”

Levonta Nelson is a Duluth East sophomore living with foster parents Terry and Barbara Brown. Before he came to them, Nelson was in a home where education was not a priority, Terry Brown said.

“If he was in (his previous home), he’d be a kid who falls through the cracks,” he said.

Nelson is working with specialist Jes-wa’ Harris on raising his grades.

One day recently during study hall, Harris met with him to talk about reports he had from his teachers.

His history teacher had said Nelson was falling asleep in class.

“Are you eating in the morning?” Harris asked. “We’ve got to get you some power food.”

Showing an easy rapport, he worked with Nelson on picking three goals for the night and how he would attain them.

Freshman Jordan Davis met specialist Vance Hopkins III during lunch recently to talk about missed assignments.

Davis was quiet as Hopkins tried to break the ice by discussing sports. Davis is young and doesn’t yet realize the hard work it takes to accomplish what he wants in life, Hopkins said. The two made a deal: If Davis made it through the term with no D’s and F’s, he would get a Chicago Bears jersey.

“If I can get him to smile now and again, it lets me know he’s thinking,” Hopkins said.

“Most of these kids have people in their lives giving up on them,” he said. “We let them know we’re going to be there a long time.”

Specialist Aaron Gelineau has worked with kids in the district in other capacities for 15 years. Many of his previous students, children of color, went to elementary schools with magnet programs. By the time they got to high school levels, some still couldn’t read, he said.

“A positive role model in their life is key,” he said. “The kids at Woodland know I am watching them. Attendance is 10 times better than it was last year.”

The achievement gap is a national problem that experts attribute to poverty, drugs and racism. Terry Brown said so many kids of color live in single-parent or dysfunctional homes that it’s easy to see how they fall into a “street-type” mentality.

“It’s fashionable to drop out,” Brown said. “But it’s nice to see a program that may help change that, at least in our area.”

The specialists all agree there aren’t enough of them to go around. Like teachers, they work long after the school day ends talking to parents. Each has a caseload of about 40 students, a number that will grow as first-graders and transfer students are added.

This first year, the goal is to reduce truancy.

“There are a lot of reasons why some children may be missing (school): transportation, clothing or shoes,” Hagland said. “Specialists are charged with finding the resources to support those children.”

Some families have been unreachable or reluctant to accept help from the specialists, wary of anything coming from the district, nearly all the specialists said. But many have embraced the help.

Davis’ father, Archie Davis, said he and his wife work long hours and aren’t home when Jordan gets home from school.

“You’ve got an unsupervised kid who knows both parents aren’t home, so what’s the point in bringing home homework?” he said, explaining why Jordan struggles in some subjects.

“This is something that should have been done a long time ago,” he said. “We really need this.”