Keeping kids in school and engaged

District 191 adopts Check and Connect program

Seventh grade was a breeze for 16-year-old Rianna Regenold of Eagan. Eighth grade was a roadblock.

“As I got older, I started not doing my homework, and then I started not showing up,” Regenold said. “My attendance was really bad.”

“As” turned to “Cs” and worse as she got into ninth grade.

“I guess stuff in my life just wasn’t to the point where I was happy with it,” Regenold said. “Things got harder for me.”

As a Burnsville High School sophomore, Regenold now has a school-based adult  mentor in her corner. Biology teacher Stephen Pettinelli works with Regenold through Check and Connect, a program designed to monitor and motivate students who are disengaged from school.

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District 191 is adopting the program this year at its junior and senior high schools. Burnsville High Associate Principal Chris Bellmont said he hopes it will be a game-changer for raising attendance among the 5 to 10 percent of students who are chronically absent.

“Attendance is the number one predictor for student success, still,” he said, and “the hardest needle to move in any area of school.”

Check and Connect is a research-tested program developed by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration and introduced in Minneapolis schools two decades ago.

It’s just getting started in District 191. Bellmont figures he’ll have roughly 3.5 mentoring positions to unleash, including two Promise Fellows provided through the AmeriCorps national community service program. Ariana LaVallee, a school family support worker provided through the 360 Communities agency, is also working with Check and Connect students.

Pettinelli meets with them during the two periods a day he isn’t teaching biology.

“He helps me keep track of what classes I need to get done homework-wise,” said Regenold, now balancing her studies with a job that she says can occupy up to 30 hours a week. “He tells me what my grades are. He keeps track of stuff that I need in each class.”

Check and Connect is part of continual efforts to keep kids in school and improve graduation rates, said Nancy Birch, the district’s targeted services coordinator, who launched the program through the Burnsville Area Learning Center.

Burnsville High School’s graduation rate in 2012 was 80 percent, she said. Districtwide, including the alternative high school and special education transition program, it was 72 percent.

“We are improving,” Birch said. “We don’t want to lose any students. We want all students to be successful in school. The more ways we can help do that, we will.”

Burnsville High started a schoolwide attendance team last year, pairing faculty mentors with students for regular meetings on attendance and other issues in school, Bellmont said.

About 60 students were involved. Check and Connect will get the school closer to the 200 or so students who need such services, Bellmont said.

“It didn’t work perfectly (last year) because we really didn’t find a way to get it systemized, and teachers are busy,” he said. “Check and Connect has really been able to give us a lot more structure to that  idea.”

Check and Connect mentors ideally stay with a single student for two years, Birch said.

“They also reach out to the family to help the family engage in school,” she said. “The mentor checks on the student’s attendance, behavior referrals and grades or course completion. They track the data, and they also work with the student to look at the data and look at trends.”

Students often don’t realize the trends they’re setting or the academic setbacks of being absent, say, one day a week, Birch said.

“The mentor helps the student understand the impact those data points can have on their success in school,” she said.

Mentors can also point students to services they need, such as a family support worker or the mental-health services available in District 191, Birch said.

Red flags that prompt referrals to Check and Connect include attendance below 80 percent, poor grades and office visits for poor behavior, she said. Participation is voluntary.

“This is not a punishment,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for the student to have someone work with them to help them be successful in school.”

The Burnsville Area Learning Center is paying a fee to bring in AmeriCorps Promise Fellows, who will mentor about 30 students each, Birch said.

Her hope is to place one at each of the three junior highs (perhaps two at Nicollet Junior High) and two at BHS. They don’t work with students beyond grade 10.

Modest expenses of Check and Connect are likely to be more than covered by retaining students who would have dropped out and deprived the district of per-pupil aid, according to Birch.

“It usually ends up being a win-win for the school district,” she said.

Pettinelli said he’ll eventually be working with 10 students through Check and Connect.

“The more success they have,” he said, “the better their futures look.”