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Taking a ‘step’ toward a better future by converting more teens into college material

Anoka’s S.T.E.P. high school shows the way to convert more teens into college material.  Meet these happy and thriving “S.T.E.P. kids,” enrollees in the Secondary Technical Education Program, a high school that provides a seamless transition to technical college and other higher-education credentials.
 
Kristen Dahlgren, who very recently was in danger of dropping out of Blaine High School, now has her sights on a nursing career. She has her plans in order for the post-high-school credentials that will guarantee a job in an assisted-living facility or hospital. She describes S.T.E.P. as a place where students are treated like grown-ups, “way different from high school” and with “not so many cliques.”
 
Mike Boehmer, who recently transferred from a religious high school, wants to be a first-responder, probably a paramedic. He’s pretty sure where he’s going to get the degree he needs to do that job – Inver Hills Community College. “They really treat you like an adult here,” he says, and he’s already picking up lots of college credits for free.

Molly Messer, who transferred from a large suburban high school, wants to do police work with dogs in a K-9 unit. “I’m almost positive this is what I want,” Messer says, and she’s bound for Alexandria Technical College, which she describes confidently as one of the best law-enforcement schools in Minnesota.

Celebrating 10th anniversary
Their unique high school, just off Hwy. 10 in Anoka and smack dab next to Anoka Technical College, celebrated its 10th anniversary this month. The students and faculty recently launched a project to create a special garden and rest area, right in the middle of the parking lot, to mark the occasion.

Among those on hand to celebrate were state Sen. Gen. Olson, R-Minnetrista, and state Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who fought hard to save this experiment in its early days from funding cuts.

Olson, in particular, has been a tigress in protecting and enhancing technical education, and says she’s currently fighting to save the cabinet-making program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

The school (motto: “High school in a college setting”) is all about encouraging students to pursue college training, and the stones-throw proximity to Anoka Tech allows them to do just that, says S.T.E.P. Director Ginny Karbowski.

Making college a reality
Throughout Minnesota, lots of high-achieving I.B. (International Baccalaureate) and A.P. (Advanced Placement) students are well into the “college track” in high school, through the innovative and highly regarded Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program.
S.T.E.P. makes that a reality for more average students, or those who do better with hands-on learning or are vocationally inclined.

“Our stats show that about two-thirds [of the kids at S.T.E.P.] pursue higher education within three years after high-school graduation,” Karbowski says, which is all the more remarkable because most students are from families with no college attainment or experience – and little or no money for tuition or special preparation. A surprising one-fourth of the S.T.E.P. students end up eventually enrolling in a four-year college.

Among S.T.E.P.’s other outstanding features:

• Every career course, again due to the proximity to the technical college, offers the newest equipment and technology and meets current industry standards.
• The atmosphere is more like college than high school – no bells, lots of options, and a culture that treats students like responsible adults. Visitors inevitably are impressed by the way these teenagers carry themselves. Enrollment is restricted mostly to seniors and juniors, and the faculty reports remarkably few discipline problems.
• Opportunities abound for “hands-on” learning and experience in various vocations and fields, including job shadowing, internships and field trips. And teachers in the more than 20 vocational fields offered are experienced professionals in their field.
• S.T.E.P. students still graduate from the “regular” high schools from which they transferred and can participate in sports and other traditional activities at those schools.

S.T.E.P. is a fine example of the kind of innovation we need to reach dramatically improved higher-education attainment rates in Minnesota, a goal shared by our leading business officials, philanthropic organizations and government and political leaders.
 
Getting students focused early
Education leaders in Minnesota (and across the nation) are beginning to recognize the value of focusing students much earlier on higher-education attainment. In our Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students project, Growth & Justice recommended more investment modeled on specific programs, such as Early College High School, Talent Development High School and ALAS (Achievement for Latinos Through Academic Success).

The notion that traditional high schools are “failing” because so many of their students fail to attend college really is inaccurate and unfair. Those schools are actually doing what they were set up to do decades ago – namely, prepare a minority of the book-smart kids with the preparation they need for a four-year college, and prepare the rest with enough skills to go right to work.
 
Trouble is, that’s not enough anymore. Technological change and an increasingly complex and crowded world requires considerably more education than ever, and lagging education attainment is a direct threat to Minnesota’s status as an economic overachiever.
 
Let’s get this straight: Minnesota will NOT continue to succeed economically unless we dramatically improve our higher-education attainment rate. It’s been the formula for our success in the past, and there is no reason to believe that generous investment and innovation toward that goal won’t produce similar success.
 
And we don’t have to start from scratch, with models like S.T.E.P. showing the way. The even better news is that community leaders in Rochester, St. Paul and Staples-Motley are looking at replicating the success, says Jim Bernstein, a former commissioner of the Minnesota Commerce Department and now special assistant to the president at Anoka Technical College.
 
Dane Smith is president of Growth & Justice, a public-policy think tank focused on Minnesota’s economy. This article also appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report.

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