Igor Kovalchuk used to worry a lot about college. The junior at Shakopee High School moved to the United States from Ukraine when he was 9. Kovalchuk dreams of becoming a music producer, but neither of his parents has a college degree, and he used to believe a two-year program might be the best he could do after high school.

"How am I going to do this college thing?" he used to wonder.

Now, he said, "I know, and I have it all planned out."

Kovalchuk started feeling more confident after he landed in Language Enrichment for Academic Purposes (LEAP), a class in Shakopee that aims to reduce the number of bilingual students who drop out of high school or don't go to college. The problem has become more urgent for many suburban schools as immigrant families migrate out of the core Twin Cities, but coordinators in Shakopee designed the program themselves and say their particular response is unusual, if not unique.

Before instructor Autumn Lee-Koomen started LEAP two years ago, a lot of kids coming out of the school district's program for English language learners "kind of ended up going out into nowhere land," she said. "I would see students that maybe had a 3.5 GPA that didn't have college plans."

Lee-Koomen has made it her mission to teach her students "what they don't know they don't know" about the U.S. education system. The class, which many students take for three years, is a cross between a study hall and an intensive college counseling program, with Lee-Koomen taking students on field trips to visit campuses, pushing them to sign up for entrance exams and putting scholarship applications on their desks.

Minnesota schools help current and former English as a second language (ESL) students in a variety of ways. In St. Paul, which has the highest percentage of ESL students in the state, the school district has a small high school for students with limited English and transitional teaching for students who are fluent enough to be in mainstream classes, among other approaches, said Valeria Silva, the district's chief academic officer. Bilingual students also make a strong showing in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, she said.

Program similar to AVID

Shakopee's program is similar in many respects to Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a national college-prep program for students not achieving their potential -- not just bilingual students -- that many Minnesota schools have adopted in the past few years. But AVID is geared toward students who earn B's and C's, while Lee-Koomen said her classes have no eligibility guidelines based on grades. To take the class, students must be bilingual and the first in their families to go to college in the United States.

Before the Shakopee program began, about 50 percent fewer former ESL students graduated from Shakopee High School, said Denise Harlos, the district's special services coordinator. LEAP students won more than $50,000 in scholarships last year, and all but one of the 14 seniors in the program went on to a post-secondary program, many to Normandale Community College.

In Shakopee, the number of ESL students has roughly doubled since 2000, to just over 900 this year. Many of those students are fluent in English and out of ESL by the time they reach high school, but "we were losing a lot of kids who simply would give up because they simply weren't able to excel in the content courses that they needed to take for graduation," Harlos said.

Part of the problem is that many bilingual students come from families who don't have the know-how to help their children navigate the college application process, let alone the money to pay tuition bills.

"My parents don't really understand a lot of stuff in our education," said Perpetual Annan, 17, a LEAP student whose family emigrated from Ghana. Annan's dad is a truck driver and her mom works at a factory in Lakeville, but she wants to be a pediatrician, a career she hopes will show her parents "that bringing me to America did not go to waste."

LEAP starts at step one

LEAP starts at "ground zero," Lee-Koomen said, with some lessons getting students to think about college in a way that might be old hat to their peers. In one recent class, she challenged her students to brainstorm a list of factors that might influence whether they like a college or not: Does it have a nursing program? Is it in a city? Is it co-ed?

The high school began sending more ESL classes on college visits several years ago, but Harlos and Lee-Koomen, who started out in Shakopee as an ESL teacher, realized that they needed to do more. LEAP was the result.

Lee-Koomen teaches about 50 students in two sections of LEAP, but her caseload includes about 150 students at the school who are eligible for LEAP. Some students sign up for the class on their own, but Lee-Koomen finds others by running data reports on bilingual students at the school.

Last year, the report turned up a boy, not a LEAP scholar, who had the highest grade-point average of any Latino student in the school. Lee-Koomen pulled him out of class to ask about his college plans. He didn't have any. "It was January, and no one had talked to him," said Lee-Koomen, who helped him get a scholarship to Augsburg College. "That's a crime. It's just so sad."

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016