Bringing SUCCESS to Washburn

Project SUCCESS expands role in schools

TANGLETOWN — For about 50 Washburn High School freshmen, the first day at their new school came early.

They visited Washburn during the first full week in August to learn the layout of the school, meet teachers and Principal Carol Markham-Cousins and, hopefully, ease what for some students can be a rocky transition to high school — a place that is larger, moves faster and requires a great deal more self-reliance than middle school.

The experience was coordinated by Project SUCCESS, a nonprofit youth development organization that has been in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) for nearly 16 years. During the school year, Project SUCCESS works with middle- and high school students, using theater as a springboard for discussions about decision-making and planning for the future.

That track record made Project SUCCESS the school district’s choice to lead Camp 2012, a program intended to get young teens thinking ahead to graduation day even before their first day of high school.

About 650 of the district’s 2,400 incoming freshman participated in the free, five-day camp Aug. 4–8, “which for a first year we thought was pretty good,” said Adrienne Diercks, executive director of Project SUCCESS.

This will be a big year for Lowry Hill-based Project SUCCESS. Not only was the organization selected to coordinate the new summer camp, it is expanding its presence in MPS by bringing its program to Washburn and several other schools.

Markham-Cousins, whose own children participated in Project SUCCESS at Southwest High School, said she was eager to introduce the program to Washburn. And she was confident her new students in Camp 2012 would be positioned to start high school on the right foot.

“It’s a huge jump for them emotionally, physically [and] intellectually,” Markham-Cousins said. “… What we’re trying [to do] is not make that jump so big, not make it so much of a leap — more of a glide. Because, with a leap, sometimes students miss.”

Off to camp

The Camp 2012 week also included an opportunity to paddle the Mississippi River in a 24-foot Voyageur canoe and connect with other ninth graders at a day camp on the St. Croix River. Day two was spent at the Minneapolis Convention Center, where the teens mingled and quizzed older students about the high school experience.

The new camp was part of a larger effort to improve student performance in high schools, said Brenda Cassellius, assistant superintendent for the city’s secondary schools.

Cassellius compared it to a district initiative to ensure all students take algebra by the eighth grade: one program prepares students for high school academically; the other prepares them socially.

She expected Project SUCCESS would lead Camp 2013 next summer.

With this new program, Diercks said Project SUCCESS planned to more closely monitor its impact on students.

“I’m really curious, when we follow the kids that were in 2012, what’s their graduation rate?” she said. “We are going to be measuring, for the first time in a much more extensive way … after high school and see how different they are from the people who graduated without these resources.”

Dreaming of success

During the school year, Project SUCCESS leads monthly classroom workshops that encourage students to dream about their future and plan out the steps that will take them there. Project SUCCESS invites students and their families to local theater performances throughout the school year and uses the stories acted out on stage to frame goal-setting discussions back in the classroom.

“We’re not here to teach theater, but it’s a tool,” Diercks explained. “So, [students] all go on a back-stage tour, they all go to a matinee and we use the themes from that show to talk about dreams.”

Last year, for example, about 2,300 students saw the Guthrie Theater production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” she said.

The organization also leads college tours and a summer trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Prior to this school year, Project SUCCESS had a presence in nine MPS schools, including Anwatin Middle School, Jefferson Community School, and South and Southwest high schools. The program will expand to several new schools this year, including Washburn.

Washburn Project SUCCESS facilitator Naheeda Hirji-Walji said the program would begin with just the ninth graders, and then expand to include future incoming classes. Hirji-Walji also works with students at Southwest and Anwatin.

She said the ninth-grade curriculum concentrated on self-reflection. As the students move through the grade levels, Project SUCCESS sessions would focus more on specific career and college goals.

Hirji-Walji said she and other facilitators form a strong bond with their students as they progress toward graduation.

“I already know what some of their dreams are,” she said.