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Minneapolis schools to dropouts: 'We want you back'

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We Want You Back program
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson visited Patrick Henry High School to tout the "We Want You Back" program. Mikayla Lewis, standing right, a senior at Patrick Henry, is part of a Youth Congress that enrolled 57 students this summer.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Minneapolis Public Schools are vowing to do something about what the district is calling its "dropout crisis." 

An estimated 2,000 students aren't enrolled in school, and some of them might get a knock on their door or a Facebook message about it this weekend. The district is enlisting volunteers to help re-enroll hundreds of students on Saturday as part of its "We Want You Back" campaign.

Juniors in an American History class at Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis had two guest speakers on Wednesday: Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. 

"Six days ago we welcomed back 32,000 students to the Minneapolis public schools," Johnson said. "So we're very excited about that, but we also know there are about 2,000 who are not in our schools and we want them back."

Mayor Rybak asked the class  if they knew someone who's dropped out, and most of the hands in the class go up. 

Minneapolis Public Schools have a graduation  rate of 73 percent, according to 2010 figures. The remaining 27 percent might have dropped out or moved, but their records haven't been requested by another school and they haven't enrolled elsewhere in Minnesota.

The "We Want You Back" campaign started last year with the goal of identifying recent drop-outs and doing whatever it takes to get them back in school. Johnson mentions online classes, and the ability to take Minneapolis Community and Technical College classes for free. 

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson
Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson visited Patrick Henry High School to tout the "We Want You Back" program. The program aims to get students who have dropped out to re-enroll in the school system.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Last month, two local rap artists lent their star power to the cause. Slug from Atmosphere taped a public service announcement with Superintendent Johnson that ends with a fist bump between the two.  Local hip-hop artist Brother Ali joined Mayor Rybak in a second PSA and offered up his own back-to-school story.

"I've performed all over the world but I didn't finish high school and I want to change that so I'm taking classes and getting ready to graduate," Ali says in the PSA spot. "I care about this community. I care about education and I care about you."

But the best pitchmen for the job may be the students themselves. Johnson and Rybak urged students to reach out to the people in their lives who might be looking for a way to finish. 

"I want to say even tweet people or Twitter," Johnson said. "Do you still do that? Do some of that stuff to get folks back."

As Johnson turned to write a telephone number on the blackboard,  Rybak tweeted it to his followers. 

Ze Thao
Ze Thao, a senior at Patrick Henry High School got a visit to her history class today from Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. Thao says she's going to get the word out about "We Want You Back" to help some friends and relatives re-enroll.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

Student Ze Thao said she knows people that she's going to let know about the program. 

"I'm definitely going to mention this to relatives because I think especially in the Hmong culture it's hard to get back when you feel that pressure of having to live to a certain expectation and just don't feel like they're ever going to be able to get there again," Thao said.

"We Want You Back" is already more than a quarter of the way to its goal of re-enrolling 200 students, thanks to a six-student team that hit community events this summer.  

"It was one of my three summer jobs," said Mikayla Lewis, a senior at Patrick Henry and on the Youth Coordinating Board's Youth Congress. She was part of the self-described "outreach machine" this summer.

"We went to National night out and that was one of the bigger events," Lewis said. "I think we got about five people that night. Even though that doesn't seem like a high number, it was great to get out there and people started to come up to us and ask us 'What is this program? How can I get into it?""

Mikayla said it hasn't taken a lot of arm twisting. 

Volunteers will hit the streets and social media Saturday, and there's some urgency. October 1 is looming; enrollment on that day determines how much per pupil funding the district will receive. With $8,000 to $10,000 at stake per student, the district wants the dropouts back, and the dollars that come with them.