Minneapolis works to bring back high school dropouts

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This past summer, I was one of the 300 volunteers to work on the We Want You Back campaign with the Minneapolis School District.

ThreeSixty Journalism is nonprofit youth journalism program based at the University of St Thomas in St. Paul. It is committed to bringing diverse voices into journalism and related professions and to using intense, personal instruction in the craft and principles of journalism to strengthen the civic literacy, writing skills and college-readiness of Minnesota teens.

I handed out fliers with information on how to re-enroll in school to anyone who made eye contact. We passed them out on city streets, at art festivals, in shopping malls – anywhere we could find teens, hoping to get a flier into the hands of a dropout.

The campaign’s goal was to get 200 adolescents back in school. An estimated 1,900 students left Minneapolis public schools before graduating during the 2009-2010 school year.

The campaign exceeded its goal by re-enrolling 162 middle school and 57 high school students, and enrolling 28 adults in adult learning programs.

“I think it was highly successful,” said Jo Haberman of the city’s Youth Coordinating Board.

The Youth Coordinating Board got teens like me involved in the campaign. Volunteer teens are involved in the Minneapolis Youth Congress, a group of teens who advise city and county officials on issues that affect teens.

Haberman said the number of adults the campaign helped surprised her since its aim was to enroll more 14- to 21-year-olds. “It was a highly experimental first year. We learned a lot. What was great was that we were both able to reach our goals and learn a great deal,” she said.

“I don’t know how you measure the impact of even one person being able to walk across that stage and get their diploma … Every time one of our young people graduates, it is a thrill and [the campaign] has been thrilling,” said Mary Barrie, who oversees alternative and charter schools for the district and helped organize the campaign.

The district started by reaching out to students who earned 40 credits or more out of the 64.5 required for graduation but hadn’t gotten their diploma. “We knew we had to do more,” Barrie said.

She helped develop this outreach in 2009 into the summer-long campaign, originally called “1,700 Reasons to Try” because there were thought to be about 1,700 dropouts. The name was changed to “We Want You Back” after finding out there were more.

The campaign isn’t over. The school district plans to make it an annual event and bring back more dropouts each year.

“Youth listen to youth more than they listen to adults,” Haberman said.

Her plan for next year includes having Minneapolis Youth Congress be involved with every part of the campaign, from planning to strategy to outreach and implementing the program “right from the beginning.”

Haberman also plans to increase the involvement of businesses and advocates from different cultural communities. “We’re going to make it bigger and better,” she said.

Several changes have been made to cater to the re-enrolled students. For example, the district’s Online Learning Center now has a full-time staff. And there are public transportation passes available, as well as laptops, for students to work on their courses. Tutoring opportunities are being developed as well.

“The plan is to connect mentors, tutors and other support from the community with We Want You Back members,” Haberman said.