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Northfield's TORCH program is raising the trajectory of Latino, low-income and first-gen college hopefuls

Northfield High School
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Northfield High School's TORCH program has been hugely successful in helping students complete high school and successfully pursue a postsecondary education.

Inside a study hall classroom at Northfield High School, on a recent afternoon, students made themselves right at home — some reclining on couches underneath a hanging string of college pennants, others hunched over laptops around a large table in the middle of the room, and others paired off at smaller desks around the perimeter of the room.

It’s a far cry from the traditional study hall model (think straight rows of individual desks, no talking), but there’s no lack of productivity taking place. An AmeriCorps volunteer helps a student with her schoolwork at the center table. Nearby, a staff member listens to a student recite an essay that she’s written, so she can give feedback for revisions. And a couple of college students — not far removed from the high school experience themselves — offer one-on-one tutoring support as well.

The students have varying needs when it comes to academic support. Some are still mastering the English language. (Districtwide, nearly 7 percent of students qualify for English language services, with Hispanic students making up the majority of this student group.) Others need an extra hand staying organized with deadlines and test prep. But they generally have at least one thing in common: The vast majority are first-generation college hopefuls.

The Northfield TORCH program — an acronym that stands for Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes — has been hugely successful in helping these students complete high school and successfully pursue a postsecondary education. The program-specific study halls housed at both the middle school and the high school are a key component, along with a team of dedicated staff employed by a community partner, the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative.

The program began in 2005 with a targeted focus on serving Latino juniors and seniors and has recently expanded to serve middle- and high-school students of color, low-income students and first-generation college-bound students. From the outset, the outcomes have been impressive. In 2005, the district only graduated 27 percent of all Latino students and 38 percent of low-income students who hadn’t dropped out before their senior year. Last June, 97 percent of program participants graduated on time; 90 percent of graduating seniors applied to college; and 100 percent of those who applied were accepted to college.

“The district could not allow this to go away. It’s become so important to the overall health of the community,” Matt Hillmann, the district superintendent, said. “We are committed to the long term, as a community, to doing this.”

A wrap-around model

Zach Pruitt, executive director of the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative, has long been supporting the TORCH initiative as a convener of community partners. In a more recent development, his organization has also taken on the financial burden of outfitting the program with staff members, rather than expecting staff members to scrape together grant funding on their own. Using a mix of funding — from the state, private organizations, individual donors, and more — his organization currently employs three full-time TORCH coordinators, along with a part-time student support staff member, all of whom work on-site at the middle and high schools.

In addition, his team oversees six AmeriCorps volunteers who are assigned to the TORCH program, as well as a number of college student volunteers who seek out opportunities to get involved.

The program-specific study halls
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
The program-specific study halls housed at both the middle school and the high school are a key component.

The school district provides classrooms that have become designated TORCH spaces, along with other school resources like access to students’ academic records and technology support. It also supports a fairly robust online Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program that allows TORCH students to take college classes for free — and for credit — while still finishing up the remainder of their requirements for graduation.

Last school year, the program served nearly 600 students — a mix of middle- and high-schoolers, along with roughly 150 alumni seeking continued support as they transitioned to postsecondary or career opportunities. For those still in the public school system, each participant is paired with a TORCH mentor who checks in with them — and their other educators — on a weekly basis. TORCH mentors provide students with homework help and academic advising, ACT prep, leadership opportunities and career exploration activities. They also take students on college campus visits, assist with college and financial aid applications, and provide guidance for those enrolled in online PSEO courses.

Because TORCH staff are able to provide one-on-one support to students enrolled in online PSEO classes, they are able to vouch for students with lower GPAs who may not otherwise be allowed to enroll. This year, close to 50 students are enrolled in PSEO classes and the affiliated TORCH study halls.

Having TORCH staff embedded in the school allowed for a similar push to take place in the district setting as well. Rather than concentrating students in basic skills classes as had traditionally been done, district leadership decided to place them in college prep-level classes with their peers.

“That really turned everything up on its heels,” said Marnie Thompson, the assistant principal at the high school who oversees the TORCH program. “These kids were in a standards bio class or a standards chem class. We got them out of there, put them in a regular college prep course, with support, and they did just fine. I think that showed teachers like ‘Wow, these kids are really capable of this college-prep pathway.’ And they really got on board with that. That was part of that system disruption. It really changed how we’re addressing the needs of these kids.”

Pruitt views the partnership model as an asset because it allows adults outside of the school system, who work closely with at-risk students, to offer new insight on how things could be done differently. His staff also have the advantage of being able to respond to students’ needs outside of the school day.

“We’re able to hopefully help identify spots where we see students continually hitting roadblocks within the district — and the community too — to then raise awareness,” he said, noting his staff go on frequent home visits to meet with students’ families and even volunteer to shuttle them to and from various afterschool activities.

District Superintendent Matt Hillmann
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
District Superintendent Matt Hillmann: “We are committed to the long term, as a community, to doing this.”

Tessa Kiesow, a TORCH director at the high school, says she got texts from both of the AmeriCorps fellows last week letting her know they were running a bit late because they were picking up students along the way.

Offering another example, she said she found herself racing against a registration deadline with a ninth-grader who’d told her, during one of their routine check-ins, that he’d been interested in playing basketball since sixth grade. After struggling to connect with his parents to pay the reduced $33 registration rate over the phone, she says she pulled out her credit card and paid it herself. The district holds an annual registration fair, to help curb last-minute frenzies like this — especially for families who face language and financial barriers — but Kiesow points out that students who might benefit from being engaged in extracurriculars still manage to slip through the cracks. That’s where TORCH mentors help bridge disconnects.

Transition in leadership

No one knows how integral all of these informal bids for connection and support are to the program’s success better than Beth Berry, one of the program’s founding coordinators. Now four years removed from the program — not counting all of the time she spends checking up on TORCH alumni in retirement — Berry recalls an extensive list of things she did over the years.

There was the time she won the trust of a Latino family to drive their daughter to the St. Kate’s campus for a tour — and a few years later ended up caravanning with them to that same campus, so they could find their way to their daughter’s graduation ceremony. And then there were the more unconventional favors — lending money to alumni who were now college students in a financial pinch (all but one of which were repaid, Berry says) and taking in homeless students for weeks at a time.

Beth Berry
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Beth Berry anticipates the program will continue to shed any prior social stigma and attract new students.

She says she’s been asked to do some consulting work with districts looking to close achievement gaps in the metro area, but she’s not always sure the conditions for a similar program are in place.

“I think the biggest issue … is teachers saying, ‘This is outside of our contract time and we only work to contract,’” she said. “I think you have to have a dedicated group of people who decide the kids are the issue, not a contract.”

Building strong relationships

At its core, the TORCH program’s success is dependent upon building strong relationships with students and their families, she said. That pillar can be traced back all the way to the program’s origins. Equipped with an initial batch of one-time funding, Berry helped orchestrate an informational meeting at a local bowling alley for Latino families. They drove a bus through the trailer court to pick up interested families and while the kids bowled she had an expert present data on how having a high school diploma provides access to better paying jobs. The pitch came at a time when so many Latino students were dropping out — often because they’d gotten pregnant or had started working a low-paying job, she said — that only a few were making it to their senior year.

“There just was not a value placed on education,” she said. “So it started with parent engagement.”

In its first year, the TORCH program had just 17 Latino students. As it started producing results, each cohort continued to grow in size. Today, the program continues to serve Latino students, as well as a number of other low-income and first-generation college hopefuls. It’s also expanded this year to encompass targeted supports for alumni who are currently enrolled in college.

Teddy Gelderman, a program coordinator and the alumni support specialist, says those who needed the extra academic support and encouragement in high school generally need it once they enroll in college as well. He reaches out via text at least a couple of times a year, just letting alumni know he’s there to offer support in any way he can. Plus he sends out care packages throughout the year, with a personalized note and some sort of treat like pizza money or a gift card to the local bookstore, to let them know they’re not alone on their college journey. He’s also working on bringing instructors from an area community college to town, so a cohort of local alumni — many with work and family commitments — can pursue a postsecondary degree without having to commute.

Natasha Smith, Emily MacPherson and Alexis Dougherty
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
TORCH participants at Northfield High School, all seniors, from left: Natasha Smith, Emily MacPherson and Alexis Dougherty.

With new leadership — including two younger coordinators who are both fluent in Spanish — Berry, who considered herself more of a motherly figure, anticipates the program will continue to shed any prior social stigma and attract new students.

“There’s much less stigma now than there used to be,” she said of the program.

Eager to vouch for popularity of the program, three female seniors all volunteered to share how being involved has set them up for future success in a way they hadn’t thought possible before.

Emily MacPherson, 17, says she spends three hours a day in the TORCH classroom — two periods of mandatory PSEO study hall, plus one elective study hall that she utilizes to stay organized so that she doesn’t procrastinate. She plans on being the first in her family to attend college.

Alexis Dougherty, 18, is currently enrolled in three PSEO classes through the TORCH program. She’s planning on taking three more next semester, so that she’ll have fewer college credits to pay for on her own when she enrolls in college next fall. She says she appreciates the TORCH classes because they’re more personalized.

“With teachers, it’s so formal. With the TORCH room, it’s very, very chill in there. We’re able to work together very well,” she said, adding having the space to flip between small talk and academics has made her more comfortable and willing to open up — especially when it comes to writing about more sensitive topics like her family background and experiences growing up.

“If I didn’t have TORCH, I’d maybe have one application done,” she speculated. “With TORCH, I have four done and I’m working on scholarship applications. All of these scholarships, I didn’t know were a thing. Even if I don’t get them, it’s that I applied to them and I tried.”

Natasha Smith, 17, voiced a similar level of affection for the program, crediting it with challenging past expectations she’d held for her future. Neither of her parents attended college, but they’re proud that she’s now enrolled in PSEO courses that are aligned with a nursing program she’d like to attend after graduating.

“My dad even put a sticker on the back of his brand new truck that says “TORCH,’” she said. "Not only am I grateful, but my family is as well.”

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