Volunteers (l to r) Kate Tobin, Devin Clarkson and Felicia Harris talked with DeVon Pruitt, 18, who decided to enroll in one of the school programs.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendant Bernadeia Johnson spoke to the volunteers before they received some training and instructions to aid in their efforts to talk with people as they went door-to-door.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Opportunity knocks for Minneapolis dropouts

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL
  • Star Tribune
  • September 11, 2010 - 10:09 PM

When Kiara Schwab dropped out of school a few years back, she never thought she'd spend her Saturday mornings encouraging people to get back in.

But on Saturday, the 19-year-old had a clear and compelling message for the people she encountered on the streets of Minneapolis: If I can graduate, you can too.

Schwab was among more than 100 volunteers who hit those streets Saturday for Minneapolis Public Schools' "We Want You Back" campaign. Sign-up sheets in hand, they knocked on doors to spread the word, and to open the door for students who walked out of school without a diploma.

Organizers want dropouts, from adolescents to adults, back in school, whether's it in a traditional classroom or taking online courses.

"Your deal is to look one young person in the eye and bring them back," Mayor R.T. Rybak told volunteers before they headed out Saturday morning.

On average, at least one out of every four Minneapolis public school students, and possibly more, fails to earn a diploma, district officials say. That equates to thousands who'll have trouble finding steady work in a struggling economy.

"We want to make the city of Minneapolis a better place," said school board member Peggy Flanagan. "We can do that through education."

Feeling isolated and frustrated, Schwab left Wayzata High School, where she had enrolled through the state's Choice Is Yours Program, without a diploma or a plan.

"I was thinking, 'This is pointless,'" she said.

Less than two years later, she landed on the 'A' honor roll and delivered the valedictory at her graduation from The City Inc., a north Minneapolis alternative school.

On Saturday, Schwab and several others worked street corners, grocery stores and fast-food joints in north Minneapolis to let people know that heading back to school, and succeeding, probably isn't as tough as they might think.

Other volunteers canvassed other city neighborhoods, looping door-hangers on knobs at homes where people didn't answer.

Organizers set a goal of re-enrolling 200 students. They settled for less than half that, but Saturday was just a small part of a much larger effort.

This summer, more than 200 dropouts, including 162 middle school students, pledged to return to class, officials said.

The next step, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said, is reaching out and providing more support to at-risk students. "We have to catch them before they drop out," she said.

State Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, took a break Saturday from his reelection campaign, but not from door-knocking. As he helped with the school effort, he said he wishes this type of outreach had been around when he was young. Thirty years ago, he said, he was on the other side of the door, facing life without a diploma and limited job opportunities.

No one came looking for Davnie when he dropped out of high school in Bloomington. He made a decent living as a cook at L'hotel Sofitel in Bloomington, but ran into a roadblock when he applied for a waiter's job: Without a diploma, the boss wouldn't hire him.

Davnie was forced to earn his GED certificate.

"Doors of opportunity were closed to me; I couldn't imagine my life without that GED," he said Saturday. "I never took a class in the Minneapolis Public Schools, but I'm a Minneapolis Public Schools graduate."

So is Schwab, who's enrolled in courses at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. She hopes to work as a linguist one day.

Along with a few friends from The City Inc., she plans to pound the pavement again soon on behalf of city schools.

"I have a new outlook on life," she said. "I don't feel like there's a time in life when I'm not going to be in school. I have too much to learn."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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