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President Bob Bruininks and Regent Patricia Spence.

During a panel at the Children's Summit 2004, President Bob Bruininks and Regent Patricia Simmons discussed the University's role in addressing issues facing children ages 5 to 13.

Keeping minority students in rural Minnesota schools: U of M summit addresses th

U of M summit addresses the issue

By Patty Mattern

Originally published on June 12

In many rural Minnesota school districts, minorities comprise 40 to 50 percent of the student body in middle grade years, but something happens as they reach 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. Minority students vanish.

Minnesota needs to stem this disturbing trend, Center of Rural Policy and Development president Jack Geller told more than 220 people gathered for the University of Minnesota's Children's Summit on June 4. The summit focused on the middle childhood years--roughly ages 5 to 13. The yearly summit is at the center of the President's Interdisciplinary Initiative on Children, Youth, and Families.

"In many ways, having those smaller environments can be seen as a safer and more constructive environment for children to live, learn, and thrive," Geller says. "Rural Minnesota takes on this pastoral myth. The truth is, all is not rosy."

Awareness of the low minority completion rates receives little notice, because overall rural completion rates shine so brightly, Geller says. An average of 80 percent of students in small, rural Minnesota school districts graduate from high school in four years, according to Minnesota Department of Education completion studies. Such data just reinforces what many people have said for years; rural Minnesota is a great place to raise kids.

"In many ways, having those smaller environments can be seen as a safer and more constructive environment for children to live, learn, and thrive," Geller says. "Rural Minnesota takes on this pastoral myth. The truth is, all is not rosy."

Once home to a largely homogenous group, small towns have turned into truly diverse communities. In places like St. James and Worthington, nearly half the students in the middle grade years are minorities.

"Here's the problem. By the time they reach the adolescent years, they disappear," Geller says. Some of those students may move to other districts or to other states and others drop out. "We need to somehow bolster our investment in these middle years," says Geller.

Paying attention to the middle years

The period of middle childhood and transition to adolescence play a critical role in healthy development of youth, says W. Andrew Collins, chairman of the 2004 Children's Summit and the Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Child Psychology. Yet, historically, researchers and others have paid less attention to children in this age group than to children in infancy, early childhood, or adolescence.

"We're finding that a lot of behaviors we attribute to later adolescence start in middle childhood. Things are taking root then, and if we don't identify and address them early on, it's harder to change their course later," Collins says.

For example, drug use is growing much more rapidly in this age group than in adolescents, says Collins. And children are beginning violent and criminal behavior earlier. However, proper intervention at this age can lead to a successful future for these children.

Once home to a largely homogenous group, small towns have turned into truly diverse communities. In places like St. James and Worthington, nearly half the students in the middle grade years are minorities.

In the case of rural schools, something is happening during these middle childhood years that leads minority students to leave school around the 10th grade. After they leave, schools or special programs put effort into getting them to return or enroll in alternative programs. "Instead of trying to fix things after the fact, why don't we invest the time when they are in school and prevent that from happening in the first place," Geller says.

A community investment

Geller's concern that those children receive the education they need to be successful is not only a concern about them individually, but a desire for a bright future for Minnesota communities, as well. "In greater Minnesota, when we look at fifth graders, many of them will be in the workforce in less than a dozen years," says Geller. "If they are completely unskilled, what does that mean for rural economic development?"

Research shows that middle childhood is the prime time for intervention, and communities must use that opportunity to keep children in school, Geller says.

Outreach programs in Sleepy Eve, Northfield, and Worthington are taking the opportunity, and there is improvement in school completion rates for minorities. The key to those programs is treating truancy and academic problems as a family issue. "Kids not showing up to school is a symptom of a broader problem," says Geller. There could be economic and language difficulties and abuse issues.

"There's a whole myriad of issues that ultimately manifest themselves in a young child not showing up for school or not doing well in school," Geller says.

Outreach programs address these issues, he says. "But where and how do you get the funding (for the programs) and how do you maintain that funding stream?" Finding funding and continuing funding for such intervention programs and other youth programs ranked high among concerns of summit participants.

In speaking around the state about the importance of investing in early childhood development programs--a way to head off problems during the middle years--Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank economic analyst Rob Grunewald discovered that child and family advocates face a significant challenge when it comes to the need for funding.

"People [who work with children at a later age] say to me, 'If the early years are so important, where can we cut back?' It doesn't work that way," says Grunewald. "If the quality of the education system doesn't continue after the early years, then we lose what we've gained."