St. Louis County board to invest $5 million to help get kids back on track

The St Louis County board has given unanimous approval to distribute $5.18 million to area school districts to help re-engage students and get them back on track for academic success following disruptions caused by the pandemic. The funding comes from the $54 million federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds awarded to the county.

Throughout the pandemic, as school districts have, by necessity, shifted to hybrid and distance learning models, they’ve reported that many students stopped attending, were unresponsive to outreach, fell behind in grades and credits, and some were unenrolled.

In an effort to proactively invest in COVID recovery, St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services collaborated with school districts throughout the county to assess the need and determine an effective solution. Together, they selected the Minnesota-based Check and Connect model.

Check and Connect is an intervention program successfully used for 30 years with K-12 students who show warning signs of disengagement with school and who are at risk of dropping out. Through Check and Connect, a caring, trained mentor builds a trusting relationship with the student, serving as an advocate for the student while also challenging the student to keep education a priority. Students are referred to Check and Connect when they show warning signs such as poor attendance, behavioral issues, and/or low grades.

Schools throughout the county were invited to provide a narrative documenting the needs of their students and schools, their plan and level of proposed engagement with Check & Connect and a budget for the mentor positions they will add. Based on this input, the County will fund 36.5 mentor positions for 15 districts or charter/private schools in St. Louis County to serve approximately 1,000 students.

“During this past year, we had students who stopped attending school and did not enroll in another school. We had students who fell behind and who thought distance learning was going to work for them, but it did not. We have students who struggled with mental health issues due to the isolation of COVID or from family issues due to COVID,” said Superintendent Reggie Engebritson of St. Louis County Schools and Mountain Iron-Buhl school district. “We know from research that to engage students to learn, we need to build relationships with them, This program will allow us to add additional adults to our teams to make connections with students and provide the support they need to either get back on track educationally or stay on track and make progress towards graduation.”

During last week’s Committee of the Whole Meeting, Commissioners were enthusiastic in their support.

“This is huge. This investment is going to pay dividends for us down the road,” said Commissioner Paul McDonald of Ely.

Meanwhile Commissioner Ashley Grimm, who represents the western portion of Duluth, noted, “Something that’s really meaningful about this project is we’re serving students north and south. It is the gold standard in Minnesota in how to intervene with students and get them back on track. This is a key way to intervene and a key time to intervene.”

Commissioner Keith Nelson of Fayal Township also praised the investment, “This allows the school districts to have the flexibility to make it work in their districts. That’s the key to this whole thing.”

Individual school districts will be hiring mentors to provide Check and Connect services in the coming weeks. The goal is to hire these mentors ready to work with students when the school year begins. The County is working with the University of Minnesota to coordinate and provide training for the mentors.

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