A school no one graduates from-and that's ok

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April 2, 2002 // UPDATED 1:17 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon, Photos by Rich Ryan
Ellen Nigon, Photos by Rich Ryan

Tucked behind the Basilica of St. Mary on North 16th Street & Laurel Avenue, a little-known high school could be little more than a holding pen for teen dropouts and transferees -- but it's not.

"To my knowledge, we're the only school where a kid can walk in the door on any particular day and we will accept that student into classes," said Dick Taylor, a teacher at the Connection Center.

The Connection Center, which shares a building with Chiron Middle School, is the Minneapolis Public School System's dropout re-entry center. Because most public schools in Minneapolis do not accept new students in mid-quarter, transferees or dropouts must attend the Connection Center until the new quarter begins; then, they might enter Edison, South, Roosevelt or any number of Minneapolis high schools.

The students could be academically perfect or dropouts re-entering the system; suburbanites who just moved into the city -- or homeless kids who just did.

Because students usually don't attend the Connection Center for more than a quarter or a semester, the school could simply act as a glorified teenage day care. However, with a student-teacher ratio of 15-to-one -- compared to 27-to-one in a typical Minneapolis high school -- Connection Center students have some unexpected advantages.

Against all odds, many say they are learning -- and enjoying it. "I like it here because I get to choose my interests," said 9th grader Greda Groettum.

Good test scores

Last year, Connection Center students scored higher than students throughout the rest of the district on the Minnesota Basic Standards writing and reading tests. Connection Center scores were lower in math, however, and admittedly, not every kid there is a model student. However, it takes less than an hour in Mr. Taylor's social-studies class to realize that real learning is going on.

Taylor's class is in the computer lab conducting Internet-based research projects on subjects the students chose. "I let kids shape the contours of what they want to do because I think it's really motivating for students to be able to do research on topics of their choosing," he said.

Anybody who thinks that letting teens choose their own research projects will result in 50 reports about rock stars is quickly proven wrong. "I've got kids doing projects on teen pregnancy, police brutality, Hiroshima ..." he said. "The kids are really motivated. I'm more of a midwife. I help them move forward."

Seventeen-year-old Dustin Duarte is in the middle of writing a six-page report about adolescent chemical dependency. When asked why he chose this topic, Duarte answered, "I'm an alcoholic myself."

Duarte explained that last August, he got busted for selling marijuana, and around that time he realized he was an alcoholic. Duarte now attends Alcoholics Anonymous. He ended up at the Connection Center because he wanted to move away from his former friends in Eagan and live with his dad in Minneapolis. "My friends were my biggest problem," Duarte said.

Because of the move, he ended up at the Connection Center; he's glad to be away from his friends, but feels a little out of place. "I'm in the minority now," he said, referring to the fact that the enrollees are primarily students of color.

Passionate learners

Across the lab, sophomore Roman Khaskilevich is passionate about his report on the Amazon rainforest. "When I see pictures of the Amazon it just puts me in awe -- and they're tearing it down," Khaskilevich said.

Without prompting, he goes on to explain his love for the outdoors. "Me and my grandpa used to take hikes through the woods. I'm a nature guy," he said.

Like Duarte, Khaskilevich found himself at the Connection Center after moving from St. Paul mid-semester to live with his dad.

Groettum ended up at the Connection Center via scandal. Her Minneapolis charter school, MTTA, folded due to financial irregularities. "I really liked that school," Groettum said.

Now she likes her new school, too. Groettum said she receives a lot of individual attention. "I'm getting a great education here," she said. "I'm in 9th grade, but I'm taking 10th-grade math."

For her social-studies project, Groettum is creating graphs charting the costs of five colleges that she's interested in attending. Among her choices: Dartmouth, Princeton, Northwestern, UCLA and the University of Minnesota. Needless to say, Groettum is academically driven.

Homeless and focused

Diaayhia Baker is also focused on her academic career, and one day she hopes to become either a pediatrician or a nurse. After living briefly in Chicago, this 11th-grader moved back to Minneapolis, where she lives in a homeless shelter. Every morning she takes the city bus to school, where she works diligently.

Right now Baker is researching Chinese culture. She explained that part of her report will focus on Chinese astrology.

"(The zodiac signs) are not the same as the ones we have," she said. "Theirs go by what year you were born. And they don't have the same holidays we do. They don't have Mother's or Father's Day, but they have a Children's Day."

From the Connection Center, Baker will attend Washburn High School. When she graduates, Baker hopes to move to Washington D.C. for college and live with her aunt.

The Connection Center school day ends at 1 p.m., when Baker will travel across Downtown to the Central Public Library. There she will do her homework and work on the Internet until 6:30 p.m.

A school day at the Connection Center is so short because students take six classes, each of which is 45 minutes long as opposed to the normal 55-minute classes. Students also don't have extra classes such as physical education or music. "The school's not real big so we don't have a lot of extra things," Taylor said. "We try to make sure that kids have a core

curriculum."

The core curriculum is made up of math, English, social studies, science and sometimes reading if the student has not passed the Minnesota Basic Standards Test in this area.

Of these core classes, 9th graders Jennifer Green and Candice Thomas say math is their favorite subject. When asked if the girls became friends at the Connection Center, Thomas replies, "No, we were friends before. We met at Mary's Place."

Mary's Place is a homeless shelter run by local homeless advocate Mary Jo Copeland. Green still stays there with her family, but Thomas's family has found a home in north Minneapolis.

According to Principal Jackie Sowell Davis, homeless kids are nothing new to the Connection Center. "There have been situations where students didn't have clothes," Sowell Davis said. "I think we get almost any situation you can think of here."

Approximately 20 students at the Connection Center are currently living in shelters.

At best, students at the Connection Center are caught in transition, so the staff tries to support them as much as possible. According to Sowell Davis, each student has an advisor who checks in daily with the student. "We closely monitor students who skip. We will stay in touch with the parents," Sowell Davis said.

All of this personalized attention has Lindsey Anderson wishing that more public schools could be like the Connection Center. Anderson is a secondary-education major at Northwestern College and a Connection Center intern.

"I wish this wasn't the last straw. I wish this was the standard," Anderson said. "When kids get here, they're already disinterested in school, and it takes a lot to get them back."