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If state Sen. Chuck Wiger needs fuel for his crusade to keep teenagers in school, he can summon distant memories of the glamour of the Big Top.
Cleaning up after the elephants, erecting and striking the tents no matter the weather and riding the semitrailer truck to Barnum & Bailey’s next stop — that was his life when he dropped out of North High in North St. Paul and ran away to join the circus.
His experiences gave him a soft spot for the “nontraditional” student’s path. It is the unspoken back story behind his single-minded focus on raising the state’s compulsory attendance age to halt Minnesota’s drift toward graduation-rate mediocrity.
“I dropped out because I was bored; I wanted some adventure,” said Wiger, a DFLer from Maplewood, who pushed through an increase in the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 17 this year. “I don’t suggest it. It can be very risky.”
Minnesota’s dropout rate has consumed many state leaders as the overall four-year high school graduation rate is at 77.6 percent, Minneapolis is at 50 percent and the statewide rate for African-American and American Indian students ranges from 45 to 51 percent. Wiger long has argued that Minnesota’s 16-year-old compulsory attendance age — when a student can drop out with parents’ permission — is part of the problem. He sought to push it up to 18, as President Obama has urged states to do.
“Three out of four is not acceptable,” said Wiger of the state graduation average, once a Minnesota bragging point. Even though another 13 percent of students are listed as “continuing” their studies past four years, state officials regard the four-year number as cause for alarm.
This year, as chairman of the Senate’s education finance division, Wiger succeeded in sending a “tough love” message to families and students everywhere: Don’t do what I did.
Wiger is a modest and soft-spoken lawyer who has served in the Senate since 1997. He brought a quiet passion for education that he nurtured as a member and chair of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School Board. He comes off as a cheerful and eager-to-please local pol who knows everyone in his district — not as an intrepid road warrior of the ’60s.
“I loved the traveling,” he said of his adventurous past.
Wiger said his parents, who also attended North High School, pushed him to get an education, and he always did well in school. But he dropped out and ran away to Florida to join Barnum & Bailey’s traveling circus, moving from town to town in a semitrailer truck up the eastern seaboard. “Oh gosh, you would help set up tents, clean up after animals,” he recalled. “Not too glamorous. You learned a lot about life and people and human nature.”
He left the circus and showed up at Tinker Field in Orlando, then the Minnesota Twins training camp. He became a clubhouse helper.
“I was a runaway at that point in my life,” he said. “My parents didn’t know where I was.”
When a spring training photograph in the St. Paul Pioneer Press showed him in the background, his parents saw it and contacted the team. Future Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew advised Wiger to call home. He did, came north with the Twins and ended up back at school en route to a law degree and a career of public service.
But his wanderlust was not quenched. After high school, he shipped out on a cargo voyage from New Orleans, ending up in Brisbane, Australia, before coming home for good.
“Recalling my own experiences, I clearly knew that if I didn’t get an education, it wasn’t likely that I’d get drafted by the Twins, or become a gifted performer in the circus,” he said. “I always knew that education was the passport for success.”
Raising the limit
Wiger faced criticism that disruptive, uninterested students should be cut free to improve the school environment and that the change would add to counties’ costs without improving the graduation rate. Critics pointed to a study by the Brown Center on Educational Policy that said the compulsory attendance age makes little difference in graduation rates.
Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, told a committee hearing of his son’s decision to drop out and do fast-food work — which convinced the son, as it did Wiger, to return to his studies and eventually get a law degree. “There are times when kids just don’t want to go to school,” Hall said. “I don’t think forcing kids to learn is a good idea.”
But the idea has taken root nationally. In addition to Obama’s call for an 18-year-old limit in his 2012 State of the Union Message, it is one of the goals of America’s Promise, a national push to reduce dropouts. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have raised the age to 18, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Wiger and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the change is part of an overall anti-dropout strategy. Gov. Mark Dayton has embraced the plan, too.
“It sends a signal … that you need to be in school,” Wiger said of the new law.
Cassellius said new testing and counseling efforts and more seamless connection with college programs that lead directly to jobs will help engage students who otherwise might walk. “It gives us one more year,” Cassellius said of the age increase. “One more year to capture his heart, capture his passions, get him engaged, to a program of study that really matches well for that student.”
Added Shelly Landry, lead counselor for Minneapolis public schools: “It allows that much more time for the student to mature a little bit and begin to understand the impact of having a high school diploma on their future.”
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said a truancy intervention program begun by his predecessor, Susan Gaertner, has been successful in improving students’ attendance. Raising the legal attendance age makes it less likely that a student who is skipping school will drop out for good, he said. “It takes that off the table for one more year,” he said.
Wiger believes the ultimate answer lies in alternative schools, charter programs and other efforts to “light that flame” for learning and give nontraditional problem students a second chance — just like he had after seven months with the circus and the Twins.
“Obviously, I’ve been in those shoes,” he said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042