Hennepin County leaders and school officials are teaming up to tackle a staggering statistic: 3,800 high school dropouts each year.

That makes Hennepin County the third lowest Minnesota county in the percentage of students who graduate in four years. Only Beltrami and Mahnomen counties had lower rates.

So for the first time, county commissioners and superintendents from 17 of the county's public school districts are meeting regularly to plan how to help struggling students make it to the graduation stage. In the next month, school boards expect to pass resolutions supporting the effort.

"This is probably the largest collaboration in Minnesota," said Sandy Lewandowski, superintendent of Intermediate District 287, a consortium of 13 west metro districts who is helping lead the work. "It sends a powerful message that we're in this together. For one school district to try to solve this isn't possible."

School superintendents met earlier this month to discuss the collaborative effort. Hennepin County officials said it's an issue of great importance to them as well.

"The county has a strong concern to have a well-educated workforce," Commissioner Jan Callison said. "We're trying to understand the problem and see how we can collaborate effectively."

Dropout prevention is complicated by high mobility of students who change schools throughout the year. Collaborating will help districts and the county track students and cut down on costs of duplicating services, Lewandowski said.

They also hope that working together will boost the graduation rate in the county from 68 percent now to 80 percent by 2015. Statewide, 75 percent of high school students graduate in four years.

Callison said that sharing school data with county social workers and the county attorney's office, which oversees truancy issues, would help school and county staff work together to help a struggling student.

"We could work together differently in a much more upstream fashion," said Kristine Martin, who oversees A-GRAD (Accelerating Graduation by Reducing Achievement Disparities), the county's five-year-old program to address dropouts.

Bringing schools into the equation now, Martin said, will better help county and school staff help at-risk students.

"We'll have a better understanding of each other," County Board Chair Mike Opat said. "We should've done that earlier."

A pilot program was started this fall to share student information, and another pilot program sharing social workers begins in April.

'One size doesn't fit all'

Some school officials, though, are skeptical that the collaboration will help 17 districts that don't all look the same demographically.

"One size doesn't fit all in dropout prevention," Richfield Superintendent Robert Slotterback said. "I don't want to put my time and energy into something that won't help our district. It's hard to say what it will do."

The school board in Richfield, which has an 8 percent dropout rate, passed a resolution supporting the collaboration this month.

County and school leaders meet next in April to continue discussing what programs are needed to help students and researching places such as Philadelphia to see how schools and counties have collaborated to improve graduation rates.

"Within 20 years, we'd like to see all kids graduating," Martin said. "The county and schools talking together is the first step. And that just hasn't happened in the past."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141