While Nikkita Page’s friends spent the last two weeks of December at home or at the mall, Page was in class at Patrick Henry High School.

She was one of hundreds of Minneapolis students who opted to ditch winter vacation to spend extra time in the district’s Winter Break Academy, a program aimed at helping students retake classes they failed in the past and put them back on track toward graduation.

The program is part of the district’s broader focus on boosting graduation rates. In 2014, less than 60 percent of Minneapolis seniors graduated within four years. The Winter Break Academy, now in its second year, attracted more than 800 students, compared with 175 last year.

District officials said they made a greater effort to reach out to students who were falling behind, with multiple phone calls and postcards home. Nearly a quarter of all of the district’s 10,000 students were eligible to attend the program.

“I chose not to be a failure in high school,” said Jania Kloeppel, a freshman, who was at the academy because she said she did not turn in all her English class assignments on time and failed the class.

At the Winter Break Academy, she studied in a small classroom with fewer than 10 other students her age. The academy was held at two high schools, Patrick Henry and Washburn. All students took a pretest at the beginning of the program to determine their mastery of a class.

The underclassmen could retake the portions of English, math, social studies or science classes that they had failed. They spent five hours a day with a teacher who condensed nine weeks’ worth of lessons into six days. The juniors and seniors spent their days in front of computers, working at their own pace.

Raederle Sterling, an English teacher in the district, taught English to freshmen at this year’s academy. In a recent class, her students reviewed heroes in literature and wrote an essay comparing modern day heroes to classic heroes. For instance, Athena vs. Wonder Woman.

Kloeppel said she found the class easy, but giving up her winter break taught her a hard lesson: “Not to turn in my work late.”

Enrolling more students

The Minneapolis School District offers the winter academy, and another during spring break, for students who have failed a class. According to Quyen Phan, coordinator of the district’s recovery programs, more than 2,500 students failed at least one class in the first quarter of the school year.

“It was heartbreaking to see how many there were,” Phan said.

In October, Phan and the district’s research and evaluation team identified the students who failed and sent them multiple invitations to the academy. Phan said last year the district put out an open invitation, but did not call students and parents at home.

The district’s goal was to enroll 1,000 students in the Winter Break Academy. On the first day this year’s academy, 800 students showed up at Henry and Washburn. Classes were held Monday through Wednesday in the last two weeks of December.

“It will increase the GPA just enough so that can help athletics, or college applications,” Phan said.

While the district was trying to attract freshmen to the program so they don’t fall further behind, more than half of the students in the Winter Break Academy were juniors and seniors trying to finish on time to graduate with their classes. Because of limitations in state funding, the program is not available for students who want to get ahead of classes.

Page, a senior who also attended last year’s winter academy, sat at a computer this year with the goal of catching up in three subjects: English, government and geography. The Winter Break Academy allows her to focus, she said.

“I think a classroom has more distractions,” said Page, who was confident she’d be able to complete the online tutorials and pass the classes.

An instructor stood nearby, ready to help juniors and seniors who might have questions as they worked. Students must work through all the online lessons to pass.

Sahara Hussein, a senior, gave up part of her winter break because she wants to be the first in her family to graduate from high school. She moved to Minneapolis from Kenya last year, and, in order to graduate on time, she needed to take a math and economics class.

If she gets caught up, she wants to attend the University of Minnesota next fall.

“I can start my career, go to college,” Hussein said.