MPS’ Kaibel honored for work engaging at-risk students

Colleen Kaibel has worked for 20-plus years to keep kids engaged in school

Colleen Kaibel, student retention & recovery director with Minneapolis Public Schools, accepts an award last Wednesday from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman for her work keeping at-risk kids in school. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Colleen Kaibel has committed her career to ensuring the success of the most at-risk students in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Last Wednesday, she was honored for her efforts with a community leadership award from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

Kaibel thanked her team of staff, her county partners and the school district’s leadership in her remarks upon receiving the award. County staff in attendance praised her enthusiasm, determination and passion for her work, noting that her commitment to supporting at-risk kids goes back over 20 years.

“I don’t think there’s a jurisdiction in America that works harder in trying to get kids to school,” Freeman said.

Kaibel oversees two programs, Check & Connect and We Want You Back, that work to help students and young adults graduate. In Check & Connect, mentors at schools across the district work to build relationships with at-risk students and help them learn to care and advocate for themselves.

The mentors work with students as early as sixth grade, helping them build cognitive skills and ensuring they have a healthy environment inside and outside of school.

“We look for the unmet needs of the students, and that’s where we start,” Kaibel said. “That leaves it pretty broad in what our work might be.”

The We Want You Back program reaches out to students who left the district without graduating, inviting them back and helping them stay on track for graduation.

State law requires schools to drop students from enrollment after they miss 15 consecutive days. Schools start working on truancy issues before the 15 days are up, Kaibel said, and the Hennepin County Attorney’s office gets involved after the seventh absence.

Kaibel’s team gets the list of students who have not been in school for 15 straight days. They start with a phone call to the student’s home and then go knock on the door if that doesn’t work.

She said her staff tries to get students to see the relevance of their education for their futures. They also help older students with housing, employment and other issues as they arise.

“It’s emotional,” she said of the work, “because you can see in a lot of these students the hurt.”

“A lot of the students have other things going on in their life,” she said, noting that many have mental health and chemical-dependency issues. “Everyone is so deserving. We can’t make them take our help, but we try to put it out there as best we can.”

Her programs appear to be getting results. We Want You Back graduated 102 of its 889 students last year. Another 445 re-enrolled in school, 26 got a GED, 213 enrolled in another school district and 32 enrolled in adult basic education.

Check & Connect serves about 1,800 students in 26 schools across the district.

Kaibel’s staff appears to appreciate her efforts. Alyssa Mitchell, a Check & Connect mentor at Northeast Middle School, said Kaibel is the best supervisor she’s ever had, noting that she gives her staff a lot of autonomy but is always there to support them.

Michelle Bell, a mentor at South High, appeared to agree.

“Her heart is just incredible,” she said, noting her care for students and her staff. “It’s obvious that it’s her passion.”