Nearly half of St. Louis Park High School's ninth-graders were failing at least one class -- a concerning number that was only rising. Alarmed, but lacking enough school funding to tackle the problem, counselor Angela Jerabek sought out her own remedy.
Taking cues from middle schools, she designed blocks that strategically track each student in ninth grade, often called the make-or-break year. Like doctors, a group of teachers team up to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions.
Nearly 14 years later, the success that the 1,400-student suburban school is seeing with the block meetings, combined with a larger-scale reworking, is prompting schools from Kentucky to Alaska and as far as Australia and Russia to visit St. Louis Park and copy it. This year, a major federal grant is funding an official test of the program in rural and urban schools in Maine and California. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has taken note, encouraging Jerabek and others to lead high school reform.
"It was a risk on my part to say, 'We're going to do this high school in a brand new way,' " Jerabek said. "There wasn't anticipation or a goal that this would be a national model. It's a lot of pressure."
In the 14 years of the program, substance abuse and truancy have declined while grades have gone up, prompting the closer look from other schools.
In the mill town of Sanford, Maine, site coordinator Martin McKeon said he was sold after visiting St. Louis Park, convinced of the program's worth "when you find a model that works in an area that isn't wealthy with a lot of resources. When we came back, the whole freshmen class wanted to get on board."
The program is being expanded to other schools by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute. In its Building Assets - Reducing Risks (BARR) program, three teachers meet three times a week with a social worker, counselor and dean to talk about each student's grades and struggles they've noticed -- from the girl caught with marijuana to a boy struggling to make it to class from a Plymouth shelter.
It's a simple premise: more adults reaching out to a student to prevent them from slipping into anonymity, failing class and dropping out.
"No student will be able to get by unnoticed," Jerabek said.
For students struggling with serious issues such as depression or eating disorders, a social worker, psychologist and dean meet in a separate group to discuss how to intervene. Students also meet weekly in a class called iTime to talk about social issues like stress management.
"In most schools, there is a desire to meet kids' needs," civics teacher Brad Brubaker said. "I think the difference here is there's a purposeful structure."
Initial skeptics who thought the program would just add work for teachers or was too "touchy-feely," Jerabek said, were won over when they saw the results.
Since the program started in 1998, the number of students in advanced classes has skyrocketed. Then, 44 percent of ninth-graders were failing one or more classes; last year, that fell to 20 percent. Cigarette use was cut in half among ninth-grade boys. Attendance is measured differently, but Jerabek said anecdotally, truancy has declined. More teens even report liking school.
Parents have noticed, too. Bonnie Carlson-Green was surprised last year when a teacher knew her son's grades and homework load in other classes.
"It's kind of like an invisible safety net," she said. "Whether parents are aware of it or not, there are a lot of other people watching out for your kid in ninth grade."
Another sign of success: Among the competitive west-metro area schools, the school closed open enrollment for the first time this year and has a waiting list.
"People looking for a school like us are finding us," Principal Rob Metz said. "We fill a niche in the world. We can't be Minnetonka, but we are who we are."
Filling a niche
Now, thanks to a federal grant, the Search Institute is officially testing the program in schools elsewhere to see if it works in smaller or larger settings.
With a $1.6 million four-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education last year, the program is being expanded throughout the high school in St. Louis Park and replicated in schools in Maine and California.
In California, suburban Los Angeles' Hemet High School started piloting the program this year and coordinator Sue Brown said she's already noticed it's created a network of support for teens at the 2,500-student school.
"Now you have all these people who have your back," she said.
When Jerabek isn't traveling across the country to help other schools start the program, she's helping to expand it in St. Louis Park, adding student tracking next fall to the rest of the high school, thanks to the federal Investing in Innovation Fund, which former civics teacher Justin Barbeau coordinates.
"You really need to get the kids multiple adults in their lives who know them and they can go to," Barbeau said. "We're setting up a school to the students' needs. Shooting to the middle hasn't worked."
Copying colleges, they added a "learning lab" with everything from tutoring to career advice. Next fall, they'll launch two "academies" that most students will take part in, like college majors, finding an emphasis in electives updated for evolving careers. Advanced students will learn more independently while those who need it will get extra help.
Fourteen years after Jerabek first sat down to help St. Louis Park ninth-graders, her work is making a broader mark on schools worldwide.
"The schools that innovate are going to be rewarded," Metz said. "You can feel like a victim in education. This is saying, 'We're going to control our own destiny.'"
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141