On Friday, when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stops by the room in South High School where students plan life after graduation, the visit will give Minneapolis school officials a chance to boast that more graduates are choosing college.

In 2005, only 45 percent of graduates of the district's seven traditional high schools entered college the following fall. Last year, the district raised that figure to 58 percent. The figure jumps to 71 percent for the share of grads entering college within two years of graduation.

That has happened because of new college and career planning rooms in each high school, new scholarship incentives from public universities and a big dose of mayoral cheerleading, according to school and civic leaders.

For several years, Mayor R.T. Rybak has made the rounds of incoming ninth-graders. He exhorts them to plan ahead and work hard, telling them the city will be their partner in reaching college through a partnership he markets as the Minneapolis Promise.

"We need you to dream really big dreams, because we have really big problems right now," he said at Edison High last month.

Showing how it can work

A few years ago, then-Edison student Josh Mattson was in the audience when Rybak mentioned the Minneapolis Promise. The Step-Up jobs program, which employed 1,980 students last summer, got Mattson's attention. He's the son of a northeast Minneapolis roofer and wasn't sure he could afford college.

Mattson quickly filled out an application, and he worked for two summers in Hennepin County's public assistance and community health offices. He gained work experience and a paycheck. He also tackled another leg of Rybak's promise, frequenting Edison's roomful of computers, counselors and college planning, to polish his career plan and the steps he'd take to achieve it.

That work helped him transform his idea of studying graphic design at a private school -- something that would have cost him an unaffordable $35,000 for a 16-month program -- into studying law enforcement in a program that starts with two years of free tuition and books at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC). That's the third leg of the promise -- that financial help will be there for students who need it.

Mattson, who graduated in 2010, returned the favor by appearing with Rybak at Edison. "Don't give up," he told those with a dream of college. "It might get hard at times, but stick with it and you'll make it."

Patrick Henry High School recorded the biggest college gain, raising its share of graduates entering college the fall after graduation from 42 percent in 2005 to 60 percent in 2010. The district's traditional academic powerhouses, South and Southwest, led with 70 and 69 percent respectively. Edison with 44 percent, North at 45 percent and Roosevelt with 46 percent ranked lowest, but all three gained by at least 10 percentage points since 2005.

Finding financial help

Programs to fill gaps between what a student and family can afford and the cost of college have also helped students raise their expectations. The biggest has been Power of You, launched in 2006, which has helped 640 Minneapolis students enroll at MCTC, including Mattson. Others in the program go to St. Paul College or Metro State University.

Another factor in the gain, according to Shelly Landry, the district's lead counselor, has been the district's goal of making all students ready for college or a career. One program targets students in the middle academically, those who have the potential to go to college but who may need extra academic support or just encouragement to do so. They're sometimes the first in their families to go to college. Students can take an early assessment of whether they're on track academically, and if they need extra help, can attend remedial classes at MCTC co-taught by district teachers.

Just visiting MCTC's campus gives students a psychological boost, said Quinton Bonds, who coordinates the college and career center at Henry. Every year, a busload of students from Henry go to the college to learn about Power of You and test their college readiness. That allows students to envision themselves on a campus, Bonds said.

The college and career centers at the seven high schools are funded by AchieveMpls, a nonprofit that raises money to support the district. Duncan will visit the center at South as part of a morning visit that will focus on Obama administration efforts to address college costs.

The district is a pilot site for a federal effort to help schools track progress by students and families on completing the federal application for student aid. The district is making a push this year to get more students to fill out the application because those who do are more likely to end up in college.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438