Honoring strong students

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by Joe Nathan, 5/23/08 • Could Minneapolis and other metro communities do the kind of high school graduation party that St. Paul did last week? I sure hope so, because adults sent very powerful, positive messages to some of the area’s strongest students: “We value your hard work. We honor your persistence. We will help you succeed.”

Several hundred thousand dollars in college scholarships were awarded to more than 60 students from suburban and urban high schools, district, charter and parochial. The “first of its kind” event was the kind of collaboration that is terrific when it happens but takes a LOT of work to do well. John Tillotson of the St. Paul Optimist Club had the idea of bringing together students who received scholarships from his club, along with the Wallin, Page, Holman, St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce Scholarship Programs, and “Beat the Odds”.

Imagine a beautiful centrally located park, with music from students, followed by brief speeches from the Mayor, the Superintendent of Schools, and most importantly, several of the students. Their first names tell a story. Recipients included a Jane, Mary, Thomas, Brian and Lars. They also included Kia, Pang, Mohamed, Tamzid, Maricruz and Najma

As one young woman named Gloria explained, “this scholarship makes all the difference between me attending, and not attending college.” Tom, another winner, praised the adults for their encouragement.

That was a theme that several Humphrey Institute students and I discovered in surveying dozens of students who received Optimist Club Scholarships over the last eight years. Jodi Graham, Sarah Hoffman and Zijie Peng surveyed/interviewed about 40 scholarship winners. They found that the students appreciated the money (no surprise there). But even more of the students remembered the dinner/recognition program that the Optimist Club put on, bringing together scholarship winners and school officials. As the graduate students concluded, “The Youth Appreciation Event was…very positive and engaging… (it) meant a lot to the students.”

This brings me back to what happened last week. Amelia Santaniello of WCCO TV news served as “Master/Mistress of Ceremonies.” Her celebrity status certainly added to the event (as did her warm willingness to pose individually with dozens of kids after the ceremony).

With or without a local media celebrity, ANY community can do this. Groups like Chambers of Commerce, Metro State, Travelers Insurance, Smith Barney, and Minnesota Private Colleges will help, as they did last week.

Honors assembly in the school auditorium are a good thing to do (hopefully with as much pizzazz as a football, basketball or hockey pep rally).

But most people don’t have students in schools. Why not pick some central park or green space where, as in St. Paul, hundreds of local business people can get to easily over a lunch hour. Civic and other groups give young people scholarships every year. Why not give a community message that their academic accomplishments matter a great deal?

“It was a wonderful day,” the Optimist Club’s Tillotson told me. Yes it was. It can be the same here.