When Andy Almos reads the newspaper and sees a former student has engaged in criminal activity, his heart sinks.“I’m from Pine County originally, born and raised here,” the East Central Schools superintendent says.
“To work as a school leader, you just can’t help but think, ‘What was that individual’s school environment like? Was there something we should have done with them as a juvenile that would have put them on a different track?’ We take that situation to heart.”
The East Central school district is one of four in Pine County, situated midway between Minneapolis and Duluth. Pine County has a population of about 31,532, with a median household income that is 37% lower than state average. The rural county also has higher crime rates.
Almos was not alone in his concerns that the school district could be doing more to keep students on the best path. Terry Fawcett, Pine County Probation Director, led an investigation into the county’s mounting truancy rates. Chronic truancy—correlated with delinquency, substance abuse, and permanently leaving school before graduation—is behavior that often prohibits individuals from becoming thriving adults. “Schools were forced to ask, ‘How effective is our truancy program?’” says Almos.
A proactive team approach
Fawcett and Pine County Attorney, Reese Frederickson, attended a three-day conference where they learned about programs that not only addressed truancy but also many of the issues that create what experts call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This term refers to how chronically suspended students may leave school for good and, with limited employment options, become involved in crime and end up incarcerated. Fawcett and Frederickson were inspired to help develop a more restorative approach. They invited a multi-disciplinary team to attend additional training at the Georgetown University Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR).
The CJJR team was comprised of Almos, Frederickson, Fawcett, Stefanie Youngberg, East Central High School principal; Becky Foss, Pine County Health and Human Services Director; and Carla Big Bear, Education Mentor at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. All were committed to becoming more proactive when responding to the needs of those in the community, especially students. Key initiatives that make up Project RISE were born out of this group’s intensive instruction and collaboration.
Frederickson says, “As a prosecutor for years, I sometimes see three generations of the same family in the courts and on probation. My own children attend East Central schools, and it isn’t great when I see their classmate’s parent that I put in jail. I think, ‘Is it really fair that that kid has fewer opportunities than my own kid?’ Can I do something besides being reactive?”
Almos agrees that a proactive approach is an important philosophical shift for educators. “The school is the place where we can all make a difference. Hearing the perspective from the criminal justice side helped us realize there’s still time to help when students are 17-years-old. We often think by the time a kid is a junior or senior in high school, well … it’s over. But it isn’t, and the research is so crystal clear: throwing kids away from school doesn’t work, so why don’t we keep them in school and try to fix the real issues?”
A shift in tolerance
A proactive perspective has yielded a more restorative response when dealing with inappropriate behaviors at school by providing students with immediate consequences while teaching them to take responsibility for their actions and be accountable to others. For example, East Central students are no longer sent home when they display negative behavior, and the district’s “no tolerance policy” has shifted. In addition, Pine County District Court Judge, Heather Wynn, now holds juvenile court proceedings within the high school and on the Mille Lacs Band Reservation instead of at the county courthouse. This modification provides better support to students and families and strongly conveys the message that a positive partnership exists among the courts, schools, and tribal community.
Reformed juvenile court and school suspensions are just a couple of the elements that make up the many initiatives and efforts involved in Project RISE. The conglomerate of policies, programs, and services not only aims to reduce the amount of school-based citations that lead to engagement with the juvenile justice system, but also seeks to increase school attendance, keep families out of the child protection system, and address the social and educational barriers that can prohibit young people from developing into flourishing Pine County community members.
Direct to the doorstep
Project RISE community stakeholders also are committed to deeper, consistent student engagement. Principal Youngberg, along with Deputy Zak Vork, School Resource Officer from the Pine County Sheriff’s Office, regularly make home visits to build meaningful relationships with students and their families. They believe this intentional practice builds trust and reveals any barriers that may cause students to not engage in their education. These visits have reduced chronic absenteeism and improved students’ academic outlooks.
Youngberg recalls how a student with significant truancy issues was able to completely change her level of engagement in school after Youngberg and Deputy Vork visited the girl’s home. They knocked on her door and waited for a response but got none even though they could hear activity inside the home. Youngberg decided to leave a note and told the student that they had visited. She wrote: “We need you at school. We can’t wait until you come back.” The girl returned to school the next day and has been absent only twice since then. “She is just all the way around in such a better place socially, emotionally, and academically,” Youngberg reports. “She has friends, she’s confident … being regularly at school has changed her experience, and making only one home visit did it. Visiting made a profound impact on that student.”
Almos believes there is value in personally and intentionally making students aware of adult commitment to them. “There is the accountability part. Students know Ms. Youngberg will show up if they don’t. And they know that she cares. The relationship piece is really big.”
Foss reiterates how important student connection is to the success of Project RISE. “The school has done an awesome job of engaging families, and that is important for learning, but also for the community. When students become engaged again with their communities, that is a behavior that is important for them, no matter what they choose to do later on in their lives.”
To that end, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Pine County Probation, and Pine County Health and Human Services have partnered to fund a culturally based community coach. Larry Staples works to engage and support native youth and families and ensures that court-referred juveniles attend scheduled court dates and do not commit additional offenses.
The work involved in Project RISE is intensive, often time consuming, and always challenging. However, the CJJR team and many others in Pine County are dedicated to creating powerful and sustainable changes in how the community thinks about and responds to youth and students. The CJJR team writes in their capstone summary: “We need to view kids as opportunities for growth and improvement when they make poor decisions.” Project RISE initiatives strive to beneficially shape the community for the future. CJJR team members want to see sustainable changes to policy, programs, and processes across systems that outlive their own careers.
So far, initial project outcomes look favorable. East Central Schools’ truancy rates have dramatically dropped in just a year, and other districts are adopting similar approaches as well as getting involved in Project RISE initiatives. The program also has spawned community discussions about expanded work that serves Pine County adults.
Almos and the CJJR team know real, lasting change is possible, and while Project RISE will certainly not fix all issues Pine County students and families face, the program has made a difference for many. The proactive, restorative approach that is central to Project RISE has inspired Pine County students and adults to show up in new ways. Almos sums it up best: “The world is run by people who show up. If you don’t show up, things just aren’t going to happen, whether it is in a job, in raising children, or whatever it is. Showing up is a basic level skill that we all need to know.”