After an untold number of students fell off track during the pandemic, St. Louis County will spend big on reconnecting children with their schools.

Acting to stem a truancy problem created during a year of mostly remote learning, commissioners moved forward Tuesday during their meeting in Proctor with a plan to spend 10% of the county’s $54 million in federal pandemic recovery funding to install mentors in schools.

The board voted unanimously to deliver nearly $5.2 million to support three years of mentorships in most county school districts. Some districts opted out because of commitments to alternative programs.

“After spending 35 years of my life in education, this is huge,” Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, said. “The meetings Commissioner (Mike) Jugovich and I had during the school year regarding truancy as we traveled throughout the various school districts, it was astounding to us.”

Paul McDonald
Paul McDonald

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The money comes from American Rescue Act funding, the first pandemic relief package under President Joe Biden and one with money aimed at new programs to instill resilience in communities. The money could not be used to supplant existing programs.

The local funding will result in 36 mentors and two program coordinators, north and south, whose collective aim will be to lend a compassionate ear to students left behind by the pandemic, and help get them back on track toward graduation.

Districts in Duluth, Virginia, Hibbing, Mountain Iron, Proctor, Ely and charter academies, too, have signed onto the program. With 16 mentors funded, Duluth Public Schools would receive the most funding at $1.6 million, followed by Virginia ($795,000), Proctor ($605,000), Hibbing ($480,000) and Rock Ridge ($360,000). For some schools, the county will do the hiring and oversee the program, for others the program will be taken on in-house.

(Gary Meader / gmeader@duuluthnews.com)
(Gary Meader / gmeader@duuluthnews.com)

The board will make its final vote on the plan in Duluth next week. It's important timing, some said, so hiring would be able to get mentors into schools by the start of the new school year.

To a person, commissioners were enthusiastically supportive, and thankful of administration and the Public Health and Human Services staff responsible for drafting and developing the plan.

The county attorney's office in conjunction with county social workers intentionally drew back prosecution of truancy and educational neglect cases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioners started reporting their concerns about an escalating problem earlier this year.

Public Health and Human Services Deputy Director Paula Stocke said there was no hard data to know now many children have fallen out of their school routine, because of the flexibility the county displayed toward truancy and educational neglect cases throughout the pandemic.

Instead, she described mounting anecdotal evidence from schools that are losing touch with some students. Some children simply fell off the grid rather than follow online modes of learning, commissioners have reported in previous meetings.

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To curb it, the county and partnering district will adopt a University of Minnesota program called “Check and Connect Student Engagement Intervention.”

“The mentor being in the school, being part of it, means kids know they have that caring support, that person there that is going to greet them,” Stocke said, adding that districts have been cooperative and appreciative of the support.

Mentors don't need a college degree, and were compared to existing paraprofessionals used by schools.

Commissioner Ashley Grimm, representing western Duluth, described the program as the gold standard in evidence-based practices when it comes to reconnecting with wayward students.

“It’s incredibly successful,” she said.

She and McDonald said it will be important to reach minority students, and provide mentors who look like the children and families they’re serving.

Ashley Grimm
Ashley Grimm

“Now is the time we can do that,” Grimm said.

Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, equated it to putting money toward getting kids their high school diploma.

“Once again we’re leading the state and nation on ways to help,” Boyle said, praising county employees’ behind-the-scenes work.

Multiple commissioners reacted about how the program helped students in both north and south parts of the county, while also using multiple sectors of government to solve a problem.

“This is going to make a big difference in getting young men and women reengaged,” Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia, said. “They need to be in school every day. Every day missing is another day they’re missing from their future.”