Jackie Starr stepped off the curb in front of Brooklyn Center High School, right into the path of an oncoming minivan.

"They looked at me like: This lady has lost her mind and said: 'Ma'am, do you know we could have hit you?' I said, 'Yes, but I want to tell you about my program for parents."'

That was back at the start of the school year. Another referendum had failed. Budgets were shrinking at Brooklyn Center, a so-called turnaround school because its largely poor immigrant students were at the bottom of the heap of standardized tests.

Superintendent Keith Lester rolled the dice and spent $55,000 of federal "turnaround" grants to hire Starr, 50, who at one time was a stuttering high school dropout with a history of drug problems.

He now calls her one of the smartest hires he's ever made.

Spend some time with Starr and it's easy to forget all the talk of worsening budget squeezes and persistent achievement gaps. She's stepping in front of traffic and doing whatever it takes to cajole parents to enroll in a seven-week Parents of Power (POP) course aimed at getting them involved in their kids' education and, ultimately, getting those children to college. Similar parent involvement programs are sprouting up in St. Paul, Rochester, Duluth and western suburbs from St. Louis Park to Eden Prairie -- in part because of Starr's success and that of other parent involvement experts.

"We hoped maybe 15 or 20 parents would sign up," Lester said. "Jackie had 36 signed up the first day." He wasn't an instant believer. "Let's see how many she'll have in seven weeks," he recalls telling himself.

But nearly all the 70 parents Starr persuaded to sign up in the fall graduated seven weeks later, emerging savvier about how to navigate the school system, talk constructively with teachers and get kids on track for college. Those numbers swelled to 100 families this term, including a session for Latinos that's taught in Spanish. At a recent ceremony, complete with purple caps and gowns and "Pomp and Circumstance" blasting from a laptop, several parents cried and high-fived. Many had never graduated from anything, ever.

"This class wasn't just about some experts telling us how to raise our kids," Ahmed Khadar told the crowd. "It was parents of real human beings, like Jackie, giving us the right tools to make our kids succeed."

State Sen. Gen Olson, chairwoman of the Education Committee, has known Starr for years through their churches. "Jackie just has a delightful way of connecting with people," said Olson, R-Minnetrista. "She has the street smarts and walk-around smarts and both the life experience and temperament, and she's obviously very bright."

Moving mountains

Starr grew up in Kansas City. Her mother cleaned houses; her father dropped out in sixth grade. She remembers getting in fights with kids who teased her about her weight and her stuttering. She dropped out her senior year of high school, following a boyfriend to Minneapolis in 1979.

"College was not a thing we talked about," she said. "It was nothing I even thought about."

Her drug troubles started when she was 8, escalating from marijuana to alcohol, pills and crack. She lost her job as a bank clerk after police busted her for selling drugs. Her first attempt at treatment ended in a relapse, but Starr has been clean for a dozen years now. She thanks her five granddaughters for that.

"When the oldest was 2, I just decided I didn't want my grandkids to grow up and say, 'That's my Granny, she's a crackhead."'

She slowly turned her life around, earning a GED, working at a treatment program and running a transitional house -- raising her son and daughter as a single parent. For 12 years, she worked for Minneapolis schools as an outreach worker, focusing on parental involvement and kids with attendance problems -- often making home visits to brush their hair and get shoes on their feet. Last spring, instead of the usual one-year contract, budget issues forced Minneapolis to offer her only a three-month extension. That's when Lester decided to invest in a parent involvement curriculum, developed in California, and he pounced on the chance to hire Starr.

A preacher's daughter, Starr hated going to church as a youngster from the day she wore a donated yellow dress to a service and heard another girl whisper to someone that the dress had once been hers.

"I had a slip on, so I took the dress off right in church and said she can have it back," Starr said, unleashing her contagious chuckle. "I got the worst whipping for that."

Her spiritual life has turned around as well. Ordained as a pastor in 2005, she runs the Bread of Life Church from a green squat cinder block building in south Minneapolis. Besides leading the gospel-laced services, Starr's church puts on a Friday night community meal and food shelf for homeless and hungry neighbors.

One recent Sunday morning, her sermon talked about "how different seeds can be planted at the same time, but one will grow into a huge tree with oranges or pears -- if you're patient."

"Mountains can be moved," she said. "Maybe not physically like Mount Rushmore, but when trials come into our lives, you can tell them to move because you have faith in your life."

'Making a difference'

Starr credits the high retention in her parenting classes to a simple premise: "A bored parent won't come back, so you have to hit them in the heart."

In the first of her seven three-hour sessions, after parents receive a cafeteria meal and younger kids go off to child care, Starr paints a picture using grim national numbers: Half the students won't graduate from high school and half of that group will go to prisons, which base their construction plans on the numbers of third-graders failing basic tests.

She then asks parents to holler out their kids' names, which she writes on the board before drawing lines through half the names, declaring them prison-bound.

"One father became so ticked at me, he kept asking me to stop and, when I kept on writing, he came up and I thought he was going to punch me," Starr said. "He took the marker out of my hand and drew a heart around his son's name and said: 'He's my pride and joy, don't you send him to prison."'

Starr exhaled with relief. "Well, it's up to you to make sure your children graduate and go to college, not prison, and that's what these next seven weeks will help you learn how to do," she replied.

Julia Khadar remembers how that first class hooked her and her husband, Ahmed, African emigres from Sierra Leone with three sons in Brooklyn Center schools, ages 6, 9 and 12.

"She grabs your attention and we were all saying, 'We don't want our kids going to prison,'" Julia said. "She's outgoing and bubbly and the best thing about her is she talks to parents on their level. She's making a difference."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767