Project Success asks students what’s next?

Whittier-based program helps Minneapolis students plan for life after high school

Project Success addresses what is probably the most pressing question confronting teenagers: what do you want to be when you grow up?

Since 1994, Project Success (PS), a Wedge neighborhood nonprofit, has helped over 30,000 students prepare for life after high school by getting them focused on what they want to do with their lives. The program sponsors monthly workshops in the English classes of six Minneapolis schools, including South and Southwest high schools and Anwatin Middle School.

Adrienne Diercks, Project Success’ executive director and founder, recognized the need for such a program while attending California’s Whittier College. She noticed that instead of pursuing their dream job – or in some cases even one related to their college majors – many of her classmates took the first available job.

"They got a degree for which they paid a lot of money, but did not sit and really dream and plan and strategize and consciously decided what they were going to do with their lives," Diercks said.

"In high school, students are so busy getting good grades that they do not have the opportunity to raise their heads above the fray and peer into their own futures," she said. "Many think that when the time comes, they will magically know what the right career path is, but it doesn’t always happen like that."

Diercks, a Kingfield resident and Southwest High graduate, made it her mission to address the issue. Project Success empowers young people to be what they want to be by helping them take the practical steps to achieve their goals.

Ann Carter has been a PS facilitator at Southwest High for five years. She spends an average of four days a week doing three to five workshops per day in English classes. Working primarily with juniors and seniors, she works with all kinds of students from the highly motivated international baccalaureate (IB) students to recent immigrants in the school’s English Language Learner (ELL) program to set posthigh-school goals.

"You’d be shocked at how many kids don’t have an idea of what to do or where to go or what they want," Carter said. "We want to help every single kid follow their dream. It might be college, a trade school, or art school or whatever."

In addition to brainstorming, Carter brings a cell phone to class so college-bound students can call college admission offices for an application or to find out about financial aid opportunities; sponsors college bus tours to schools around Minnesota and as far away as Chicago; and takes others on tours of Dunwoody Institute, 818 Dunwoody Blvd. or the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, 2501 Stevens Ave.

However, it’s not only about career goals. They also discuss life choices like whether being married or being single, having children or not having children is the best choice for them as individuals.

Wedge resident Pip Gengenbach is in his second year as a PS facilitator at South High. He said he tries to get students to imagine their possibilities. During the school year, he develops relationships with as many kids as he can. He spends one day a month taking over classes for each of the 14 English teachers at South, presenting the eight different workshops of the PS curriculum.

For juniors and seniors, he focuses on college and career workshops For freshmen and sophomores, he has an activity wherein students make paper airplanes and write not only the goals they’ve set for themselves but also five small steps they can do to achieve them.

"All of the students launch their planes and declare their goals and steps before their plane hits the floor," Gengenbach said. "Not only does it get them to assert themselves but gets them talking about their goals out loud."

Cheryl Creecy, who retired in June as Academic Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, is on the PS board of directors. She helped bring that program to Anwatin when she was its principal in the 1990s. She said that once she heard about the program and met Diercks, she was convinced that waiting until high school, for many students, was too late.

"I think in order for kids to be on track in senior high, they have to already have goals in mind when they are in 9th grade," Creecy said. "If you do not decide until 11th grade that you want to go to college, you may have already blown your 9th-grade and your 10th-grade credits.

"Kids need to learn that every high school class counts," she added. "And if they have that information in 6th grade, there is a better chance that they are going to succeed."

Theater is one springboard PS uses to promote discussion. Sixteen Twin Cities theaters donate a total of 17,000 free theater tickets to students and their families each year for such productions as "The Golem" at Theatre de la Jeune Lune and "Death of a Salesman" at the Guthrie Theater – the first play PS used in its curriculum in the 1990s.

Students focused on the life of Biff Loman, who wanted to live on a ranch while his dad, Willy, wanted Biff to follow in his footsteps and be a salesman.

"As Shakespeare said, theater is a mirror in which people can look at their own lives," Diercks said. "But theater often raises more questions than it does answers. We talked about the choices the characters made, and it led to wonderful discussions where kids framed questions for their own lives."

For many of the students, it is their first time attending theater. It’s a bonus that they can do so for free with their parents and siblings. PS even arranges transportation and child care for younger siblings.

Madeline Hart-Andersen, an East Harriet junior in the Southwest IB program, said she looks forward for the PS workshops. She said they not only helped her define what she wanted after high school, but also offered a break from her study of Greek tragedy.

In one workshop, Hart-Andersen said, the class discussed student fears about college, what colleges are looking for in students and how you can be the kind of person colleges would want.

"Project Success is really cool," Hart-Andersen said. "They want us to be involved in our futures and feeling OK about what we are doing.

"I know that right after high school I want to go to a small liberal arts college," she said. "I want to teach math, but I would also like to teach abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. That’s one of the many ideas that I have. I’m not really sure what I am going to do, but they do have me thinking about it."

Creecy said kids with college-educated parents do fine. But low-income students whose parents never went to college need extra help, and PS does a great job of helping them prepare. Sixty percent of PS students are low-income.

PS recently moved into two schools in St. Paul. Diercks said one of the organization’s goals is to be in all seven Minneapolis high schools and all eight middle school in the near future.