UMN mentor program will use tech to boost grad rates

The 27-year-old Check and Connect program will use an app and an online module to train and provide resources to program participants.

by Natalie Rademacher

In a new pilot program, a 27-year-old University of Minnesota mentorship project will use technology to streamline data collection and student engagement.

Check and Connect — a program aimed at improving graduation rates among K-12 students — was the first program to use an intervention approach to help struggling students. With a five-year, $2.5 million technology grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, mentors and students will use online applications and training modules.

“The real key here is to keep kids engaged and get them on track for graduation,” said David Johnson, director of the Institute on Community Integration. “We have already developed these pieces of the program and now just want to put technology in front of it.” 

As part of the program, mentors at schools and districts are trained by University Check and Connect trainers. These mentors then work directly with students, spending time with them and monitoring their progress towards graduation, said Eileen Klemm, Check and Connect program manager. 

Right now, three Check and Connect trainers travel to locations nationwide to set up these programs – which are often paid for by grants the schools receive for their own Check and Connect programs. 

The demand for the technology component came from the schools already using the program, Johnson said. 

The new technology grant will be used over a five-year span to pilot the new technology program, which includes an app and an online module. Phase one includes monitoring the implementation of the new technology and using feedback from the schools to update it, Johnson said.

Humboldt High School in St. Paul will be the first to participate in the pilot, Johnson said.

Participants now have the option to use the Check and Connect online application, which takes the place of the previous method of tracking data on paper or Excel spreadsheets, Klemm said. 

“The app is hugely about data visualization. It can show students the progress they are making and help them track their goals,” she said.  

The application will allow mentors to spend more time with the students, rather than entering data for the program, Johnson said. 

The online support module — intended to help participants use the app and implement the program — will include resources like training videos for both students and mentors. 

“This will get the technology into the hands of the implementers,” Klemm said. 

The online module will be rolled out in the next couple years. 

Since the app was released in October, users have provided positive feedback. 

“Our student engagement coaches prefer the app because it is easier to use and more accessible,” said Darnell Logan, a Check and Connect coordinator in the DeKalb County School District in Georgia. 

Since Check and Connect was implemented three years ago in that school district, target students enrolled in the program have seen a 44 percent decrease in suspension rates, said Michele Summerlin, another Check and Connect coordinator in the DeKalb County School District. 

Program coordinators hope the app and online module will make resources and training more accessible to out-of-state schools looking to implement Check and Connect. 

“We don’t just train the mentors once,” Logan said of their school district. “It is an ongoing progress, and we and the University monitor the implementation.”

Additionally, due to the cost of bringing Check and Connect trainers to schools, many are trained to educate other mentors. The module will make this process easier, Klemm said. 

“The online module will include information on how to increase student engagement and build a support system,” Klemm said. 

While more training will be accessible online, Klemm said not all components of the mentor training can be provided in a technological environment. 

“There are parts in the training that involve relationship building and one-on-one problem solving with students – things that can’t be replaced by technology,” Klemm said. 

Johnson attributes Check and Connect’s nationally-recognized success in increasing graduation rates to the relationships built between mentors and students. 

“Disengagement often leads to problems, including dropping out,” he said. “It is helpful to have a person in your life that gives a dang about what you are doing.”