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Helping to 'Launch' their futures: Educators, others, gather to discuss ways to increase graduation rates

BEMIDJI -- Ranae Seykora, an assistant principal at Bemidji High School, temporarily stepped away from a meeting on how to increase graduation rates when she ran into a student and asked for the student's input.

"Without even hesitating, she said, 'Courage. I need encouragement, courage, and I need to know I'm not alone,'" Seykora said Wednesday, speaking at a daylong symposium at Wells Technology.

Seykora was one of about 30 area professionals, school officials and nonprofit leaders who came together for a symposium on increasing the graduation rate, particularly for American Indian students.

"It's everybody's problem, it's not just a K-12 problem," said John Eggers, who through Project Graduate, led the gathering at Wells Technology.

Those who participated were encouraged to share with the group their success stories, illustrating methods and activities that cultivated positive results.

Andy Wells, the founder and president of Wells Technology, spoke of his Wells Academy, a work-training program that aims to provide prospective employees with the skills needed to perform the job.

"We live it," Wells said of the training and education gap. "We see so many people apply for work without a high school diploma."

The ultimate goal -- a 100 percent graduation rate for all students -- seems lofty, he admitted. "But you have to set a high goal and go after it. Everything we do helps people."

The day culminated as participants broke into small groups and presented on an idea that they believe could be tested before Oct. 1, when participants will gather again for a follow-up session.

Among the ideas was a canoe trip for sixth- and seventh-graders. Jay Malchow, school counselor at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, said he used to take sixth- to eighth-grade students to an outdoors youth camp and that experience bonded the students together and built trust between them and staff members.

Five or six students went with him every year and are now on track to not only graduate, but they have high GPAs and are "rocking the world" with their success, Malchow said.

His goal, shared by his group, would be to tell his sixth- and seventh-graders this fall that if they have perfect attendance for the first three weeks of September, they could go on a staff-supervised canoe trip.

Jen Voge, a teacher at Bemidji High School, said one of the keywords in education right now is grit, or the act of teaching students what it means to persevere through a difficult task.

The trip, she continued, would be a good way of teaching that.

Two other groups suggested that the Career Launch program be expanded through the Boys & Club of the Bemidji Area. That program aims to work with students to explore potential careers and consider post-secondary education options.

Tim Lutz, superintendent of Kelliher Public Schools, said that program could be expanded to be brought under Ramp Up to Readiness, a program already in area schools that is designed to early on get students thinking about their future career goals and the steps they need to take to achieve them.

"It's important to give students a sense, a visual, for their future," Lutz said.

Another group that also keyed on in on the Career Launch program suggested that it partner with other agencies as well to make sure it would benefit all students, specifically mentioning that probation officers become part of the conversation.

"We need to give them more skill-building opportunities for them to mature and grow, to turn them in another direction," said Tanya Hasbargen, executive director of the United Way of Bemidji Area. "That's a big step."


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