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Rock Star Supply Co.: Young professionals help kids rock the classroom

This serious-minded but lighthearted nonprofit tutors at-risk kids in the coolest possible way — by matching them up with adults in creative industries.

Sarah Williams with a student
Photo by Bill Kelley
The Line

“We believe anyone who wants to change a teenager’s life is a rock star,” says Emily Cook, Executive Director of Rock Star Supply Co. (RSS Co.), a 4-year-old nonprofit that seeks to improve academic achievement among at-risk kids. Each Friday morning, a troupe of young, dedicated volunteer tutors, clad in the group’s iconic T-shirts, head into public high school classrooms in Minneapolis and St. Paul for small-group, 90-minute tutoring sessions.

The Rock Stars’ goal? Nothing less than closing the daunting divide between students of color and white students, which Cook calls the “opportunity gap.” It’s certainly a big challenge in a state where, for example, black students rank 36 points below white students in math test scores. But Cook, backed by her cadre of Rock Stars, is confident.

Musical roots

“Our volunteer tutor base is made up of the sort of people you might see in a coffee shop like Minneapolis’ Common Roots on a weekday morning — creative, hard-working people with a flexible schedule. We’ve been able to tap into a group of about 60 of them to provide extra support to students who might not otherwise receive the focused attention they deserve,” says Cook.

Rss volunteer Sergio Vucci and Executive Director Emily Cook
Photo by Bill Kelley
RSS volunteer Sergio Vucci and Executive Director Emily Cook

Founded in 2009 by a group that included several musicians prominent in the local music scene, including Courtney Yasmineh and Holly Muñoz, it’s a small organization with a lofty goal.

“A lot of the founding group members had creative gigs going — writers, artists, songwriters and designers. We all agreed that the future of Minnesota depends on having an educated citizenry,” says Cook, whose literary background includes stints at Granta and Milkweed Editions. If the current education system seems like an unusual topic of conversation for a bunch of creative types, Cook, age 34, insists that “it’s not such a hard leap to make when you realize it’s what everybody should care about.”

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Ninth-grade sweet spot

While they work with kids of all ages at Como High School, Journeys Secondary School and The Lab in St. Paul, and Roosevelt and Wellstone International High Schools in Minneapolis, the group does have a designated “sweet spot” target group — ninth graders. “I liked to quote Jay Peterson, our former board chair, who was instrumental in getting us off the ground. He says ninth graders are the best because they look like they’re tough, but they have soft interiors — they’re still young enough and open to the idea of asking for help,” Cook says.

A significant part of their current success relies upon the quality and commitment of their volunteer base. While the coffee-shop clientele is one source, the organization also maintains a presence at music festivals and events like Rock the Garden. Cook reports that their volunteer retention rates are high, and says that she’s pretty sure why: “You can’t care about the world, step into a classroom one time to meet with a kid, and not want to go back.”

The fun factor

Matt Rahaim
Photo by Bill Kelley
Matt Rahaim

There’s another reason that people stay on with RSS Co., one that’s often overlooked in the usual volunteer experience: fun.

Matthew Rahaim, 35, is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Minnesota and a dedicated Rock Star. “I’ve been teaching my whole adult life, and I’ve seen many different tutoring programs, but this is by far the most flexible and efficient organization,” he says. “They make it easy to put your skills to good use. It really just takes an email and a quick, fun training session, and then there you are, helping high school students to polish up a sentence, or balance an equation or distinguish between tu and vous.

“They have an institutional ethos that supports fun, right down to the periodic bowling-and-brainstorming sessions where we share teaching methods and compare notes,” he says.

That bowling can be powerful stuff, as Conor Donnelly, 38, knows. The Minneapolis resident, who works as an IT Specialist for the State of Minnesota at the Board of Water and Soil Resources, joined a friend one night last autumn for happy hour at Bryant Lake Bowl. “It turned out to be a RSS Co. event, and I got to meet tutors and learn a bit about the program,” he says.

After that event, Donnelly made a commitment to be a Rock Star, and he now spends Friday mornings at Como High School. He was paired with a student who was described as having “severe attendance problems,” and was missing class almost every day. The student is now present just about every Friday, Donnelly says, and the Rock Star was gratified to hear that that the young man had done very well on his final exam.

“The teacher mentioned to me that it’s been helpful having me there to keep him focused and completing assignments in class. I’m giving up less than one hour a week of my time, and I’m gaining a lot in return from the experience,” he says.

Meet at a concert, end up in a classroom

Sarah Williams, 25, has a degree in English education, a day job in sales, and a desire to, as she puts it, “stay fresh and relevant.” She first encountered RSS Co. at a table at the Sound Town Festival, and she now volunteers each week at Wellstone International High School. She acknowledges that, even as an adult, “It can feel intimidating to go back to high school, but the experience is valuable and rewarding in a real, down-to-earth way. It’s a unique and important opportunity for community members to understand what’s going in our public schools.”

Koffi Kagni, Elioenai Gonzalez, Giovani Olivares, and Deborah Soriano--students
Photo by Bill Kelley
Koffi Kagni, Elioenai Gonzalez, Giovani Olivares, and Deborah Soriano — students at Roosevelt High who meet with RSS tutors

In addition to flex-time members of the creative class, the group also hopes to extend their volunteer reach to a base of organizations willing to donate workers’ time. Cook’s husband, Sergio Vucci, 36, is a perfect example. Vucci, who is vice president for correspondent operations at Wells Fargo, meets his weekly Rock Star commitment by giving up Friday lunch hours and adding that time to paid volunteer hours provided by his company.

Anyone can be a rock star

So what happens when students and Rock Stars meet?

“They catch up on assignments, study for tests and — we hope — develop a strong relationship between that student and a caring adult,” Cook says. “What we see in the schools are a lot of really smart kids who want to do well, and we hope that we’re helping them get a little bit more of what they need,” she adds.

Ben Rengstorf teaches English as a Second Language at Roosevelt High Sc
Photo by Bill Kelley
Ben Rengstorf teaches English as a Second Language at Roosevelt High School

Ben Rengstorf, 35, who teaches English as a Second Language at Roosevelt High School, says, “My Rock Stars recently worked one-on-one with students for an essay contest about famine relief in the Horn of Africa. One volunteer, Douglas Fehlan, is a professional writer, and he worked with a student who had been in a refugee camp in that very place. The student had first-hand experience, but he needed help articulating it well. He ended up winning one of the contest prizes.”

Sometimes Rock Stars develop special projects that aren’t related to daily assignments. Rahaim recently brought recording equipment into Como High School to help students make their own recordings. “They recorded vocal and instrumental tracks, and collaborated on making decisions about mixing and editing. They were shocked to find how little of the work of producing a song has to do with inborn talent, and how much of it has to do with teamwork, digital technology, and math. But that’s the point — making a pop song isn’t some chromosomal gift. They learned that anyone can be a rock star, with a little hard work and the right institutional pathways,” he says.

‘No one is doing enough’

Asked why she thinks her organization can make a difference in closing a gap that has remained persistently wide, Cook points to the work that is done to prep volunteers for their classroom time.

“We are really committed to training our volunteers in the best tutoring practices. My job is to track down all the best information and latest research,” she says, noting the group’s close working relationship with the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation.

“You could argue that we are doing what a lot of people are trying to do, but we’re a little different because our focus is high schools. And the fact that the gap is still so big means that no one is doing enough,” Cook concludes.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.