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Countywide mentoring program shows promising results for struggling students

Last year, Check and Connect boasted a 75% reduction in absenteeism and a 62% reduction in suspensions among enrolled students

High school student talking.
Duluth East ninth grader Raleon Moore talks Monday, Sept. 26 about how the Check and Connect program has helped him improve his study habits and grades. The school district expanded the mentoring program into its Alternative Learning Center this year.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Raleon “RJ” Moore turned an academic molehill into a mountain and back.

The East High School ninth grader is one of hundreds of students in St. Louis County’s Check and Connect program, which pairs struggling students with mentors who routinely meet with them to review their grades, attendance and study skills, and to set goals to improve each as necessary. They also check in regularly with students’ parents.

Moore said he fell behind on his classwork while he was an eighth grader last year at Ordean East Middle School. The pile of assignments he needed to complete to catch up with his classmates only grew larger and more daunting.

“I didn’t feel like I could do it by myself,” Moore said. “Just discouraging. No confidence to do the work.”

He was paired with Becky Davidson, a program mentor at Ordean. Last year, Moore and Davidson would spend about an hour each week going over Moore’s classwork, helping him sort out his overdue assignments, and, more broadly, working on his organizational and study habits. Moore went from C's or worse last year to straight A's so far this year, and has only missed one class so far: an excused absence for a football game.

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He said he stays on top of his work nowadays, and attributes about 90% of his improvement to the program.

Others had nudged Moore to get additional help, he said, but the time in Davidson’s room at Ordean seemed to stick.

“It was more fun. I was getting stuff done. I was actually getting the stuff I was learning,” Moore said. “It’s like she actually tried to understand, and all the other teachers were kind of just doing it because it was their job. I guess I felt like Ms. Becky was genuinely nice and was actually trying to help me out.”

Davidson, who was sitting nearby while Moore spoke to the News Tribune, was touched. (Moore said he also liked the snacks Davidson had on hand in her room.)

Mentors consider a student’s attendance, behaviors and course performance, which some abbreviate to the mnemonic “ABC's." With those metrics in mind, they put together a goal for a student: meeting with a teacher to figure out a plan to complete missing assignments in a course they’re not doing well in, for instance.

“Then they would talk about how they’re going to complete that goal and when they’re going to check in next,” said Sarah Laulunen, who oversees the program at Duluth Public Schools.

Woman talking.
Sarah Laulunen, districtwide Check and Connect coordinator, talks about the program Monday, Sept. 26.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

From there, the mentor speaks with a parent or guardian and explains what that “ABC” data indicates and what the student’s plan is for the coming week.
The next week, Laulunen explained, the mentor would revisit those goals with the student and their parent or guardian.

“Did you get back to your teacher? Did you do those assignments?” Laulunen said. “Or do we need to continue that goal for another week?”

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The program is also in schools where students are still about a decade shy of their graduation day. Elementary students can, of course, also fall behind on basic reading, writing and math skills.

“Maybe they missed getting a math sheet done in class,” said Leah Payne, a Check and Connect mentor at Bay View Elementary, a Duluth school that’s part of the adjacent Proctor Public Schools. “So we’ll catch up on that, then we might talk about some kind of behavioral thing that’s going on. Whether that might be getting along with other kids, getting along with their teacher. Maybe they want to talk about what’s going on at home.”

Check & Connect Submitted
Check and Connect Mentor Leah Payne, left, with second grader Lincoln Starstead.
Contributed / John Engelking, Proctor Public Schools

County COVID money fuels an expansion

Currently, 48 Check and Connect mentors like Davidson are stationed at 32 schools in St. Louis County, where they’re working to help about 780 students in the program.

In August, county commissioners agreed to apportion $5.18 million worth of COVID-19 aid to the program. That money is set to be spread across last school year, this one, and the next. It mostly pays mentors’ salaries. The county is set to add more mentors and ultimately spend a total of $5.4 million on the program in all.

In a report delivered to county officials last summer, the program boasted a 75% reduction in absenteeism and a 62% reduction in suspensions among mentees countywide.

One woman listens as a second talks.
Bitsy Zwak talks about the Check and Connect program Monday, Sept. 26 as Becky Davidson listens. The two are Check and Connect mentors — Zwak at East High School and Davidson at Ordean East Middle School.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

From September 2021 to the beginning of April, students in the program missed nearly 10,000 combined class periods, according to program administrators. From that point onward, though, Check and Connect students only missed about 4,300 classes, despite a rise in program enrollment from 801 to 839 in that same span.

“The highest area of attendance concerns shifted from excused full-day absences in the beginning of the school year to missed classes, indicating that students were present at school more frequently, however, were not always in attendance of all of their classes, which is a notable improvement,” the report reads.

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Similarly, behavior referrals for program mentees fell from 1,975 in the first portion of the year to 650 in the second.

Staff at Duluth Public Schools speak highly about Check and Connect, and Duluth School Board members last week signed off on a plan to station a mentor at the district’s Alternative Learning Center this school year.

Duluth administrators installed the program at Denfeld High School in the 2016-17 school year, well before the county pointed funding its way. It was funded instead via a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education.

The initial program at Denfeld was meant mostly for students who are enrolled in special education classes and are Black, American Indian or identify as two or more races. With county money in hand, administrators expanded it into East, Ordean and Lincoln Park Middle School. They also broadened its reach to the general student population.

Sign sitting on a table.
A sign in the Duluth East Check and Connect room.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The initial Denfeld program also concerned itself mostly with students’ graduation rates. Check and Connect students in the school’s class of 2016 graduated on time less frequently than the school’s student body as a whole, but, since then, mentees’ four-year graduation rate has gradually ticked upward. In more recent years, it’s been the same or greater than the schoolwide one.

Beyond that, the most recent published data on Denfeld’s graduation rates indicates that every Check and Connect student at the school has ultimately graduated, even if it takes them five or six years rather than four. The same can’t be said for the school’s overall student body.

'All about the relationship'

Laulunen at Duluth Public Schools attributed the improvement in attendance and other metrics to the “intentional, persistent” relationship it engenders between mentors and students via a “prescribed” program.

“It’s all about the relationship,” she told the News Tribune.

Lisa Perkovich, another Check and Connect coordinator who covers schools in northern St. Louis County, said she feels the program succeeds where similar efforts might fail. She said it can be difficult for a teacher to find time to help a student the way a Check and Connect mentor can.

Lists posted on a wall.
To help mentors and mentees connect, each of the four mentors at Duluth East posted lists of their interests and experiences in the school’s Check and Connect room.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“That unparalleled time of one-to-one is something that a regular classroom teacher wants to do, but, when class sizes are large, simply cannot,” Perkovich said. “And by no fault of the teacher. It’s just by design of the system.”

The program was developed at the University of Minnesota in 1990 with federal money meant to address the disparities in graduation rate between special education students and their general education counterparts, according to Jana Ferguson, an education specialist at the university’s Twin Cities campus who helps schools in Minnesota and beyond implement Check and Connect.

“And what that all came down to was students who are engaged with schools are the ones who get to graduation,” Ferguson said. “Out of that, our theory of engagement, came this mentorship program that’s one-on-one with students, building those connections with students, their families, the schools, to remove barriers to student engagement so that students can be more successful. ... That went very, very well.”

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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