The teenage girls who toured Augsburg College last month looked like typical aspiring university students. Their journey to the Minneapolis campus, however, was far from ordinary.
Back in 2001, they were among 364 third-graders offered a gift of a lifetime: Stay in school, keep up your grades, and in 2010 nab a $10,000 scholarship for college and support getting there.
The nine-year experiment is heading to the finish line with a burst of energy, but with only about 135 of the starting players. Family mobility and student distraction proved to be tall hurdles -- even with $5 million from the Minneapolis Foundation.
"I really didn't take it too seriously at first," acknowledged Jasmine Taylor, a Henry High School student who was among the students scoping out Augsburg's dormitories.
"The lady [from the program] would call and I'd try to find a reason to get off the phone. But that changed in 10th and 11th grade. ... Now it's like, 'I'm going to college for real!'"
Taylor's up-and-down involvement with the project reflects the challenges and successes of the initiative, one of about 20 across the country.
The project called Destination 2010 "adopted" seven third-grade classes in Minneapolis and St. Paul, offering students academic support and personal encouragement throughout the years to pave the road to college. Students get a $10,000 scholarship to a four-year college or $5,000 for a two-year technical school, plus significant help finding other financial aid.
Minneapolis Foundation leaders say they knew the road would be rocky because they targeted only schools in the poorest neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul. No other philanthropy in the country had taken that approach, said program staffers, who spent nine years battling the repercussions of family instability, academic strains and limited personal expectations.
"People thought this was a risky proposition and that we were not going to have a 100 percent success rate -- and that happened," said Sandra Vargas, foundation president.
"But for the kids who succeed, there will be no sweeter sound to their ears than when they're told, 'You're off to college!'"
The biggest eye-opener was how often students packed up and moved. The dropout rate for Destination 2010 was more than 60 percent, in part, because students became ineligible if they left Minneapolis or St. Paul public schools.
The experiment started with 364 students in seven schools. Today, there are 185 students from 42 schools. Those numbers include a group of 50 teens with similar demographics who graduated from a Cargill scholarship program in 2006.
Khadija Jackson said she has run into some of the program's dropouts while shopping or grabbing a burger. Some left because of low grades or credits in high school. Some left because they moved. Some didn't see why college was a big deal.
"'They ask me, 'How's it going?'" Jackson said. "I tell them, 'It's going good. You're missing out.'"
The students who stuck with the program found doors opening that they didn't know existed. Foreign language camps. Tours of historic black colleges. Summer enrichment programs.
"I'm from Kenya, and I don't have the parents who know how to sign you up for honors classes in high school," said Ifrah Abdalla.
"Now that I know how everything works, I can help my brothers, sister -- anyone who wants to go to college," she said confidently.
The project now has data about student mobility and at-risk students never before collected over a nine-year period in the Twin Cities, said Kathleen O'Donnell, program manager.
Destination 2010 students gathered recently in a high school career room for this year's first "Third Thursday" program. All 185 students were invited, but typically about 20 show up because of competing demands of sports, jobs and other activities, said O'Donnell.
This night there were nine.
The lively group sat behind computers, eating a free pasta dinner and scrolling through scholarship websites. A good-natured O'Donnell tried to cajole one of the young women into signing up for an ACT preparation class.
"So are you coming Thursday?" O'Donnell asked. "It's just five weeks."
"That's a month!" responded the teen.
"Tell me what else you could be doing that's more important to your future?" O'Donnell asked.
"Improving my basketball skills," said the young woman.
The tugs of students' immediate world are a constant challenge for Destination 2010, acknowledged O'Donnell. Many students simply don't have touchstones in their lives to guide them into making the best decisions for their future, she said.
According to Minneapolis Foundation reports:
• 91 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
• 42 percent of their parents surveyed had no education beyond high school.
• 46 percent of parents surveyed in 2006 were not married or living in "marriage-like relationships."
Other adopt-a-class programs around the country face similar challenges, even with students from somewhat higher income levels, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit education policy organization based in Denver.
The results of such programs are unclear, she said, because there's no collective data on them.
"It sounds like a good idea on the face of it, but we still don't know how many of these students finish a degree, said Zinth. "If you don't come out with a degree, it's not much more help than a high school diploma."
That said, research shows that parent and student aspirations play a huge role in whether a student attends and completes college, she said.
Raising aspirations is what Destination 2010 is about, said O'Donnell and many students.
"It definitely made me work harder in school, knowing that Destination 2010 was the backbone right behind me," said DeShaun Banks, an upbeat young man from Minneapolis. "It's like a support group for teenagers to stay in school and get where you want to be."
The final lap
Banks was among roughly 55 students and their families at fancy dinner tables a week ago Saturday for the celebratory "Last Lap" dinner. They dined on tangy orange chicken, listened to messages of inspiration sent by the mayors and school superintendents of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and got a crash course on applying for college scholarships.
Destination 2010 leaders proudly looked around the room where their stars were shining.
There sat Taylor, transformed from a little girl sitting at a desk at Broadway Elementary School in Minneapolis into a young adult eager to pursue a degree in nursing.
A few tables away sat Jackson, all grown up and contemplating degrees in psychology or business administration.
And Ciera Jones, on the other side of the dinner hall, who had an internship at the Minneapolis Foundation last summer and now is eyeing a degree in business management.
"I'd be lost if I didn't have this," said Jones. "I've learned I don't need to stay in a box. Just because other people aren't doing something, doesn't mean I can't."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511