Bonnie Dahl spent last year at East Junior High School building relationships with students who needed some extra help.
Through a new program called Project Success, she provided guidance to those students and became a person they were comfortable seeking out when they needed someone. The proof Project Success is working came this year, she said, when the students she worked with last year came to find her again on their own accord.
Dahl's table of participants Monday afternoon at the Minnesota Alliance With Youth's regional summit on the achievement gap agreed that these kinds of programs — as well as educators building relationships with students, in general — are important ways to improve student success in schools.
“A lot of educators think kids are coming (to the classroom) with the same clean slate,” said Ellisha Dunnigan, a junior education major at Minnesota State University, where the summit was held.
But unless teachers learn each student's story, they don't know if a student sleeps in a car at night or when his or her last meal was, Dunnigan added. And a student's home life can have a major impact on learning.
Dahl and Dunnigan were two of about 20 area students and school and college officials who gathered in the Ballroom for the event. The goal was to bring youth and adults together to discuss a variety of issues related to the gap, from bullying to youth engagement. The alliance will be holding such summits in every congressional district in the state.
Discussions were about the various factors related to the achievement gap that participants have seen in their schools. Topics highlighted responses to a survey administered by the Minnesota Youth Council last year, in which youth identified their top issues as bullying; drug and alcohol abuse; and gangs, crime and safety.
Those who participated provided their thoughts on how these issues relate to dropout rates and the achievement gap. The alliance hopes to use the feedback at the summits to help impact state policy changes.
Dahl brought up negative peer influence as one factor. When peers are viewing learning and school culture through a negative lens, that can greatly hinder success in school.
Dunnigan added that a student's family life also can have that effect, when they're living in a negative environment that doesn't foster learning, or an environment where the child isn't receiving their basic needs.
“I think that's huge,” Dahl said. “We have kids come to school that the only two meals they eat are the two meals they eat at school, and they don't eat on the weekends.”
Dahl also said those issues filter into student behavioral issues in the classroom. Some teachers can't teach to the level they would like because they're constantly having to stop and correct behavior problems. Dahl said an extra adult in every classroom would be an ideal situation to allow the teacher to just focus on teaching.
Other topics discussed included a lack of enrichment to keep high-achieving students engaged; alcohol and drug use; apathy by some teachers; cultural learning differences related to refugees and immigrants; and too much pressure to achieve on tests.
Future summits will be held Nov. 23 in Duluth and Dec. 3 in St. Cloud. A statewide summit will be held in the Twin Cities June 13, 2014.
For more information, visit mnyouth.net or contact Kori Redepenning, director of engagement and policy with Minnesota Alliance With Youth, at firstname.lastname@example.org.