The middle school and high school students who Jerome Graham mentors face an uphill battle to make it to graduation. He's the project coordinator for the Map Project, which reaches out to young people held in Ramsey County juvenile correction facilities to try to keep them in school.
"Pretty much all of our students have failing grades or are very seldomly in school," Graham said. "There's also some behavior issues, and also they're in the special education program, and also they're impoverished."
Graham is in the middle of a four-year grant that's allowed the program to hire on staff for an intensive mentoring program that aims to try to keep these kids going to school.
The program called Check & Connect utilizes lots of data about the academic and attendance challenges the student has faced. But at the heart of the program is an intensive relationship built among the mentor, the student and their family.
"We tutor and help in classroom, talk about what's going on at home, talk about their future after release," Graham said. "Building trust with the youth and their families is so key, because a lot of them don't trust the system that they're in, the court systems."
The Check & Connect program has spread as far as New Zealand since it was developed at the University of Minnesota two decades ago. A gathering of educators attended a two-day conference on the widely-known dropout intervention program in the Twin Cities this week, 25 years after research began on it.
A U.S. Department of Education assessment of studies on the program found that it's helped very high-risk students to stay in school and get better grades.
"Maybe they got their first A or maybe they made the honor roll for the first time," Graham said. "Any success for these students is bigger than we could imagine themselves. Because a lot of them don't consider themselves to have any success in their lives, some of them feel defeated."
Sandy Christenson, an educational psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, helped develop Check & Connect 25 years ago along with former University President Robert Bruininks.
Christenson said the researchers knew they could list off characteristics that made dropping out likely, such as being in a large, urban school or being a low-income or non-white student. But they decided to focus on categories they could easily measure and address, hoping that would help students stay in school and perform better.
"We wanted to look at multiple variables of disengagement, those things that fall into the categories of attendance, academics and behavior," Christenson said. "How do we help that student who is now disengaged to learn to meet the demands of the school environment?"
Mentors are assigned to individual students. They track their school assignments, absences and behavioral problems.
"We don't want just warm the seat time, we don't want students to just attend," Christenson said. "What we really want them to do is to want to be at school. We want them to learn and think about their future."
But one thing the researchers noticed during the testing phase of the program was that not all academic problems originated from school, or even from the student themselves. Some parents didn't make sure their children woke up for school on time due to something as straightforward as the fact that the parents worked a late shift the night before.
"The whole reason to reach out to the families is because the families' understanding of what is happening in school, their valuing of education, gives very important input and messages to their children about going to school and working hard and education," Christenson said. "To leave that piece out would be limiting interventions to only what can be done within the day at the school."
The Department of Education studies show this is the best intervention program that has tried to improve academics and attendance among students with the highest risk of dropping out. Despite that progress, there is still far to go in improving graduation rates.
The main challenge to instituting the Check & Connect system is the large amount of staff time it requires. Christenson said some districts have full-time dedicated staff for the program, while others rely on counselors. One school even assigns an office receptionist as a mentor.
Gail Ghere, who supervises the office of specialized services at St. Paul Public Schools, said the district has had to be creative as they started to more widely institute the program starting last spring. She said the program is based on relationships, so it adapts to the individual student and their family's needs.
Although it's too early to tell whether the program is working in St. Paul, Ghere said it appears to be on the right path.
"If kids are more strongly connected in the community and have strong relationships, then they're more willing and more apt to believe in themselves as learners and they'll stay in school," Ghere said.
Graham, who works with kids in Ramsey County correctional facilities, said the data available in the program is helpful, but it's the personal relationship that helps these kids see that they have more options than dropping out.
"Maybe they made some bad choices, but the majority of these choices were made with a large group of their peers," Graham said. "When you're able to pull these students away from their peers and have genuine conversations, you get to see that these kids are really genuine nice kids when they're by themselves — that's their true self."