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Reengaging Young People into School: Project Return

By: Daniel Martinson, AmeriCorps VISTA serving with GradMinnesota

I asked Nina what she needs to stay in school. She answered, “Someone to be there for me”. 

Nina is 14 years old.  When “life happened” and her family’s living situation became unstable, Nina and her mom moved in with her great-grandma for a short stint.  When that living situation fell through, they began experiencing homelessness and bounced between one shelter where they could get a warm meal and another where beds were available.   Living in a completely new part of the city and having to deal with a highly uncertain and mobile lifestyle, Nina had trouble getting to the school at which she had previously been enrolled.  Nina and her mother struggled to get into contact with the school bussing company to change their pickup address and to get back on the bus route.  With no school-facilitated transportation, no one able to drive her, and no other affordable means of transport, Nina simply couldn’t attend school.  The family needed to find another way that she could continue her education.  Nina’s mom started looking for other options for schooling, but she didn’t know where to start looking much less where would be best for her daughter. That’s when Nina’s mother got connected with Project Return.

Project Return

Grown out of the St. Paul GradNation Community work and implemented in September 2014, Project Return is a joint project between St. Paul Public Schools and the Ramsey County Attorney’s office.  The emphasis of this initiative is to identify and locate students who have missed 15 consecutive days of school and have subsequently been dropped from enrollment at the respective school.  The Project Return Coordinator aims to re-enroll these students into appropriate educational environments and continues to re-engage them and ensure sustained support is provided.  Last year, 91 eligible students were reengaged and 41 were re-enrolled into school.

The Right Fit

Through the work of Albert Green, Project Return Coordinator, Nina was enrolled in an educational program that fit her unique needs.  She now regularly attends a St. Paul charter high school.  After attending for only 2 weeks, it’s clear that this program has been hugely impactful to Nina’s learning and development.  With student-to-teacher ratios as low as 7 to 1, Nina enjoys the attention and support she deserves and needs.  She realizes how little attention she had gotten at her old school, which had a much higher student to teacher ratio.  She reflected, “If you raise your hand, the teachers come right away.  At my old school I didn’t get any attention”.  Nina feels much more welcome to open up in the smaller class-size atmosphere.  She’s empowered to ask questions, support her classmates, form relationships, be herself, and get excited about her education.  When we spoke last, I asked her what her favorite subject was.  Her answer was reading, and she readily and eagerly shared with me the book she’s reading for class.

Not only is the charter school programming educationally enriching, engaging, and personal, it also provides students with flexible transportation options.  A shuttle service and a school-funded taxi transportation service ensure students can get to and from school.  This is especially important for young people experiencing unstable housing situations or homelessness.  Due to Nina’s struggles with her previous school and transportation, these services have prooven vital to her reengagement and reenrollment into school.

Relationships Matter

Nina’s reengagement in school was facilitated by relationships and individualized support for Nina and her mother.  I asked both of them what they think students need to stay in school.  Nina stressed how important it is to be surrounded by family, friends, and caring adults who push her to do her best and be her best self.  Nina’s mother remarked, “We need someone to say, ‘I have a spare 30 minutes. Let’s check up on this family to see how they’re doing.’”  Both recognize the importance and powerful potential in an open and collaborative community that strives to fully understand families and the struggles they deal with.  As Nina’s mother put it: “Don’t judge a kid…you don’t know what they’re going through.”

While programs like Project Return are making huge strides in the right direction, interrupted enrollment of students continues to be a massive challenge across the state.  In the St. Paul Public School District, 283 of the 2,570 students that could have graduated in 2016 either dropped out or had unknown statuses.  This means that in 2016, nearly 1 in every 11 students dropped out of school or were lost track of and could have benefitted from re-engagement programs.  This is a major challenge and requires careful consideration.

Like many of the young people who interrupt their enrollment in school, Nina struggled with both logistical and relational barriers to continued enrollment in school.  Not only could she not physically get to school, but she also wasn’t getting the attention and engagement that she needed and desired.  It took a caring adult to reach out to her and get to know her, her family, and her situation in order to connect her to appropriate supports.  Even if the result was a solution to logistical challenges, the starting point and sustaining aspect of the engagement and support of Nina was a caring relationship.

Often that’s what young people need – someone to devote those spare 30 minutes to see how they’re doing.  This may be the secret to getting that 1 student out of every 11 back into school and finding their success.

For more information on Project Return contact Albert Green, Project Return Coordinator, at albert.green@spps.org

For more information on Recovering and Re-engaging Youth into school, visit https://mnyouth.net/work/gradminnesota/resourcelibrary/recover-and-re-engage-youth/


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