Ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, and they may say a doctor, an artist, a computer programmer, a professional athlete or a teacher. But does their education teach them to set goals and how to reach them?
For almost 15 years, Project SUCCESS has been helping students in Minneapolis and St. Paul do just that.
Project SUCCESS is a youth-development organization that works with students to foster life skills and inspire them to act on their dreams. Through academic, career, and personal development exercises, as well as trips to local theaters, students learn to make informed choices and plan for meaningful futures.
Students are introduced to this program in sixth grade and work (although it looks more like play) with Project SUCCESS facilitators once a month from September to April each year until they graduate high school. Students don’t need to sign up or qualify for the program; it reaches every student in its partnering schools — nearly half the middle schools and high school students in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.
This year, the number of participating schools grew from 11 to 18. Bridge-area schools include South High School (one of the first to use the program), Anne Sullivan Communication Center and, new this year, Marcy Open School and Sanford Middle School.
“It’s always been our hope to expand into middle schools,” said Program Manager Jason Brown. “It feeds into the high schools so we can help the kids for a longer period of time.”
Setting the stage
Project SUCCESS began with one person’s idea, and now it reaches over 10,000 students and their families.
Adrienne Diercks, founder and executive director of Project SUCCESS, said that, even after she completed her college education, she still was uncertain what to do with her life. Although she was taught reading, writing and arithmetic, she didn’t know how to plan her career or future.
“If you don’t plan, how do you make things happen?” asked Diercks.
As a K–12 Minneapolis schools graduate, she started by applying her ideas to her alma maters. She began with a program called Possibilities Inc. and eventually collaborated with founding theater partner The Guthrie Theater to create Project SUCCESS.
There are three components of the program: theater attendance, workshops and one-on-one staff/student interaction. Diercks said that, although workshops are the springboard and base for growth, all three components work together to help the kids succeed.
Project SUCCESS has expanded from one founding partner theater to 27 theaters in the 17 years of nonprofit work. These theaters provide Project SUCCESS with tickets, and Project SUCCESS coordinates arrangements for students and their families to attend performances — including transportation and childcare. Bridge-area theaters include The Guthrie, Cedar Cultural Center, Mixed Blood, Southern Theater and the University of Minnesota’s Department of Theatre Arts & Dance.
Project SUCCESS staff then lead monthly workshops in the schools that incorporate themes and issues from the theater experiences that students may draw upon in their own lives.
Middle school students attended Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Guthrie Theater in February. The supporting workshop discussed themes of priorities and supporting each other to accomplish goals.
“This is not an arts program,” Diercks said. “Theater is mostly used as a tool to inspire the kids to develop their dreams.”
In addition, Project SUCCESS offers one-on-one afterschool sessions with students and takes them on college tours across the country.
Brown said that, even though they have worked with the two new schools (Marcy and Sanford) for only six months, he has seen a difference in the students’ behavior.
“I’ve noticed the kids have been better listeners, [are] more equipped to be supportive of each other and are more likely to not pick on each other, and we’ll see more of it over time,” he said.
Joey Hays, an eighth-grader at Marcy Open School, wants to be a musician. He said Project SUCCESS has helped him set up his goal and figure out how to get there.
“It helped me prioritize what I need to do to accomplish my goals,” said Hays’ classmate Elly Onikoro-Arkely. “I want to get a good job and be educated.”
Such mentoring continues as students move on through school and the program. Project SUCCESS helps with college financial aid, job applications and organizes college tours, for example.
Project SUCCESS is funded primarily from individual donations and corporate and foundation gifts. Schools like Sanford contribute $4,000 a year to fund Project SUCCESS. There are a few additional fee-based services for which schools pay.
Asked how schools are able to fund this extra program with the current recession. Diercks said, “If a school can’t afford to pay, we help out. But even with huge budget cuts being made, schools continue to make this a priority.”
Signs of SUCCESS
Former Minneapolis North High School student Donnie Belcher, now a student at DePaul University in Chicago, credits Project SUCCESS in helping him reach college. “I am here with the help of many people and programs,” said Belcher, “but none more significant than Project SUCCESS.”
Dierks gives her carefully picked staff credit for the program’s success. “The great thing about this staff is that they are inspired and really care about the kids,” Dierks said.
Current workshop facilitator Pierangelo Rossi was introduced to Project SUCCESS at a University of Minnesota job fair, and it was a perfect match. According to one Sanford Middle School student, “Pierangelo is cool and relates to our life. He helps encourage us to reach our dreams and go to college.”
According to Project SUCCESS literature, an independent study conducted by the University of Minnesota in 2004 showed that nearly three-fourths of the 4,900 Project SUCCESS participants (in Minneapolis high schools) surveyed indicated Project SUCCESS helped them “to create a plan for after graduation.” When asked who assisted them in future planning, 88 percent rated Project SUCCESS ahead of friends, counselors and teachers — second only to parents or guardians.