Karice Austin has a packed agenda this summer: taking classes in reading, math and financial literacy, learning to use a 3-D printer, attending a play at the Guthrie Theater and participating in weekly African drum and dance classes with new friends.

The 16-year-old rising junior at Cooper High School in New Hope spends much of her week on the Brooklyn Park campus of Hennepin Technical College, where she and more than a dozen of her Cooper classmates are part of a program that aims to help low-income and potential first-generation college students prepare for their futures — all while having a little fun.

Though it means spending part of her summer break back in the classroom, Austin said it's a major improvement on what she probably would have been doing otherwise: spending her days sleeping late and watching Netflix.

"This is definitely better," she said.

The program, Educational Talent Search, is part of a long-running federal initiative to help middle and high school students beat the odds and find academic success before and after graduating from high school. Students participate in programs during the academic year at Robbinsdale Middle School and Cooper High, and older students like Austin have the option of continuing during the summer.

Participants cover the college prep basics, getting guidance on taking tests and writing essays, and get an up-close look at college life with overnight stays on college campuses. (This summer's big trip is to Bemidji State University.) But program organizers say one of the keys to success — particularly for the students willing to take on the extra work in the summer — are classes and events that encourage teamwork, develop communication skills and celebrate students' heritage.

One of the summer program's most popular offerings is the hands-on instruction in drumming. Every Tuesday afternoon, the students help instructor Christian Adeti set up a circle of chairs in the college's auditorium and haul in the large drums. Together, they make music, learn about the musical history and traditions of West Africa and gain confidence in their own abilities to try something new and succeed.

Lisa Roney, director of the Educational Talent Search program, said instructors make a point of highlighting students' own cultural backgrounds as part of the program, and encouraging them to explore others that might be unfamiliar. The drum instruction is a nod to the large population of Liberian-Americans who live in communities around the college — including some who participate in the college-prep program.

As the students carefully listened to Adeti's instruction — and tried to keep up with the tempo he set on a cowbell — Roney said the class might seem like a nontraditional approach to preparing for college. But she said it helps students develop the critical skills they will need to succeed in and out of the classroom.

"It's team building that they have to do to work together like this," she said.

Now in its seventh year serving Robbinsdale Area Schools students, the program has delivered notable results. In 2018, the graduation rate for participants was 91% — well over the state average of 83%. Three-fourths of the students involved with Educational Talent Search enrolled in college immediately after graduation.

Alumni like Vincent Cody O'Neill, 18, of Brooklyn Center, credit their time with the program — including in the summer — as a major influence on their decision to attend college. O'Neill, who is set to attend Augsburg University as a freshman this fall, said summer program offerings such as cooking and computer-aided design were particularly memorable.

"It's one of the greatest support systems for first-generation college students," he said, "because without them a lot of my questions would be unanswered right now."

Se'Anna Johnson, 23, of St. Paul, graduated last year from Augsburg with a bachelor's degree in sociology. She's had jobs and internships in state government — including in the governor's office — and now works with Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities.

Johnson said participating in the college prep program as a high school student set her on that path, particularly because outside speakers and creative programs showed her that success in college and in the workforce could coincide with her own interests. She said some students, particularly those who are the first to attend college in their family, may want to chart a different course from their parents' but can't map it alone.

"It can be difficult if you know this is no longer what you want, but you don't know what it looks like to get what you want," she said.