To prevent more students from dropping out of high school, Minneapolis has coaxed them into summer classes -- before they even start ninth grade.

Fast Track Scholars, a $250,000 six-week summer program, aims to boost the district's graduation rate by helping nearly 600 incoming freshmen adjust to high school.

Roughly one out of four students who enters a Minneapolis high school as a ninth-grader doesn't graduate in four years, district data shows.

With Fast Track, incoming freshmen can earn up to three of the 62.5 credits required to earn a diploma, giving them a head start on the road to graduation.

"They'll know the expectations," said Gary Beasley, a dean of students at South High who's working in the summer program. "Hopefully it will make their and our lives easier."

More often than not, the struggles begin during freshman year. Students who don't earn enough credits to reach sophomore status are much more likely to give up, district staff said.

On a recent school day, Fast Track students sat in Gabrielle Bliss' ceramics class, kneading mounds of clay, simultaneously demanding her attention and seeking her approval. Every 30 seconds, another student called out, "Ms. Bliss, Ms. Bliss. How is this?"

In Bliss' eyes, molding clay is a metaphor for what she's doing with her students' minds. "You have to take something, refine it and help it become something," she said.

The cost for Fast Track includes more than $167,000 for a weeklong camping trip.

Participants must live in the city, but more than 170, roughly a third of the students, are undecided on where they'll enroll or have made plans to attend suburban or private schools.

Still, the district hopes to attract more of the 2,000-plus freshmen who enroll each fall in its high schools.

"There are ... kids who are left behind if we don't do this," said Ken Simon, director of secondary schools for Minneapolis.

Conquering first-year fear

The Fast Track scholars spend six hours per day, four days per week, at South High School engrossed in math, health and physical education courses and art courses.

Students visit Minneapolis lakes and parks, learning to use the city to incorporate fitness in their everyday lives.

In Bliss' class, Mekhi Taylor wanted to mold a sea creature but wasn't sure what he produced.

"It looks like a fish slash slug," said Taylor, who came to South High from Marcy Open School.

For him, the challenges of three-dimensional art may very well mirror those of high school. "It's going to be a lot harder, for sure," Taylor said.

The daily homework and unforgiving policy on late assignments has jolted some students, but close to 600 had enrolled by late last week, with more coming in as word spread about the program's benefits.

High school "either makes you or breaks you," said Stephen Scott, an incoming South High freshman. "They know our potential, and they push us to it."

Beginning with a fall survey, Minneapolis plans to track Taylor and the hundreds of other participants for the next four years to measure the program's effectiveness.

Staff members plan to focus on the social adjustment as well, grouping students in classes by their high school choice, allowing them to form a circle of friends. Hundreds of them are spending this week at Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wis., bonding with future classmates.

"They just need a little more hand-holding than they've received," said program coordinator Elizabeth Bortke. "Their anxiety is going to be reduced."

When Lalita Barry left Lake Nokomis' Keewaydin campus last month, she fretted about the transition to high school: the larger classes, the tougher course work, the older teens.

"I'm going to face my fear," said Barry, who plans to attend Roosevelt High. "I'm kind of feeling like I'm already in high school."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491