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Project SUCCESS celebrating its now-documented results

The nonprofit uses theater and other experiences to guide some 12,000 Twin Cities students a year to dream — and to plan to realize their dreams.

Project SUCCESS uses theater and a number of other experiences to guide some 12,000 Twin Cities students a year in 16 Minneapolis and St. Paul middle and high schools to dream — and to plan to realize their dreams.
Courtesy of Project Success

How do you quantify hope, when you know a student’s belief in her potential can be self-determining?

In an era ruled by outcomes, how do you project the size of a dream?

Anybody have a test that assesses whether a young person, with planning and courage, will reach his aspirations?

When it comes to imbuing a life with meaning, what’s the standard for proficiency? 

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Twenty years ago a Minneapolis woman named Adrienne Diercks had an epiphany that was easier to experience than to describe. As a young theater bug, the exceptionally bright Diercks had more energy and talent than focus.

When she decided she wanted to find herself through travel, a relative agreed to co-sign a loan provided Diercks make a concrete plan for herself. Somewhere during her time at the deadly-dull job she took to pay back the loan, Diercks decided that the lesson — dream big, but with intention — was her life’s work. 

Kismet intervened when, at the request of the Guthrie Theater’s director of artistic relations, Sheila Livingston, she led a group of teens in an after-show discussion of “Death of a Salesman.”

The fictional Willy Loman’s interactions with his son Biff got to the kids, who needed no prodding to relate the themes of the play to their own lives. Diercks and Livingston knew they were watching magic.

To dream … and to plan

Of that moment was born Project SUCCESS, a unique nonprofit that uses theater and a number of other experiences today to guide some 12,000 Twin Cities students a year in 16 Minneapolis and St. Paul middle and high schools to dream — and to plan to realize their dreams.

Mounting research on why some disadvantaged children soar while others benefit less from the most intensive interventions has identified a factor author Paul Tough describes as “grit” — traits such as determination, persistence and a belief that ability is not fixed.

These “meta-cognitive skills” can be taught. And while kids at all socio-economic strata benefit, low-income and minority students are particularly at risk of internalizing adult messages that they are unlikely to succeed.

Last fall, Diercks and her team got good news from a team of evaluators from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI).

At a breakfast fundraiser Wednesday, the group will celebrate its documented success at tying student achievement to something as seemingly ephemeral as a dream.

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More engaged, more confident

Students who spent up to seven years in the program told the evaluators [PDF] their participation made them more in engaged in school, more interested in setting goals and planning the education they would need to fulfill them and in keeping track of their progress. Current and former participants also reported being more confident, motivated and interested in developing better work habits.

More surprising, a number of teachers whose classes got regular visits from Project SUCCESS facilitators said the experience had helped them. Many teachers reported feeling energized by watching facilitators reach students in ways that hadn’t occurred to them. Others said they saw their students in a new light.

The program “helped me to know students in different ways,” one teacher told the evaluators. “And the more you know about students, the better you can present curriculum to them in a more meaningful manner.”

And while students gave the program higher marks for playing a transformational role in their lives, most teachers reported a change in their students.

“Some of being successful in school is your attitude, a way of thinking about school,” one teacher told the evaluators. “If you have something positive to look forward to at school, you’re going to engage in school differently. It isn’t just fun and games, they (Project SUCCESS) are very intentional about what they are doing.”

What they are doing is a little tricky to explain, but the nutshell version is that the organization exposes kids on a regular basis to activities they would not otherwise be likely to experience, and spends time in their classrooms helping them set goals and learn to plan to meet them.

At the core: theater

Theater is at the heart of it. Eight to 12 times a year, students and their families are invited to attend performances at local professional theaters. The shows are regular evening and weekend performances, not field trips, and in addition to free tickets families are offered transportation and child care.

In school, every student — including those in special education, learning English and in other specialized classroom settings — gets eight visits a year from Project SUCCESS facilitators who work with them, ideally, throughout middle and high school.

In part because of the theatrical tie-in, the workshops take place during English and language-arts classes. Content is closely aligned to English curriculum meeting Minnesota’s standards. As students move up in grades, more college- and career-planning activities are introduced.

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In many ways, this is key to the program’s success: With schools under pressure to focus on core academic content over arts and social and emotional well-being, the fact that the workshops’ content is interwoven with instruction already on the schedule allows the program to reach every student, not just those who can be counted on to opt in. 

In four Minneapolis high schools — South, Southwest, North and Washburn— students can get extra, one-on-one time with program facilitators after school. In middle schools, Project SUCCESS helps students stage their own performances or take on theater-related projects.

BWCA trips, college visits

Other initiatives include a program that helps participants make the transition to high school, week-long Boundary Waters canoe trips and visits to college campuses in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.  

As of last year, the program finally has a presence in all Minneapolis high schools and most middle schools. Project SUCCESS is expanding in St. Paul. Both districts would like to see it in every classroom in grades 6-12, but the nonprofit has to scale up a school at a time.

And to do that in the current “results-oriented” era, they need evidence [PDF] that nurturing hope is not a soft skill. Last fall’s report should help.

“Researchers suggest that one of the most important tasks of education is to teach students how to learn on their own throughout their lifetimes,” the U of M evaluators noted. “Metacognition is a critically important, yet often overlooked component of learning. In general, it involves self-reflection and awareness, goal setting and planning, monitoring one’s own progress and adapting as needed.”

This is certainly borne out in students’ feedback.

‘Opened up my perspective’

Ever since Project SUCCESS, I feel that I am more into myself in the ways where when I think, I think about my decisions and how it affects others,” one reported. “Project SUCCESS has really opened up my perspective and my choice of what I want to do with my life. Now that I am in college, I feel that I am who I am today because of the experiences and the projects/ sessions we had in class.”

Another traced her decision to start planning for her future directly to “experiences that my parents never would have been able to or thought to expose me to. … I still think about my trip to the BWCA for the first time and the feeling of totally surprising myself. I also clearly remember seeing ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ at the Guthrie and being floored by the performance.”

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“I appreciated that Project SUCCESS opened to me the idea that I could plan things other than college/academia-ad-nauseum after high school,” commented one more. “I did end up going to university and doing so on a fairly traditional track, but having that open space in which I could know I was choosing to be there was immensely important emotionally.

“Every once in a while, when faced with a question or decision, I hear [my facilitator’s] voice in my head reminding me that ‘dreams’ is an acceptable answer to every question.”