Working with only spaghetti and tape, juniors at the Alexandria Area High School were given 15 minutes to construct the tallest tower possible.

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The catch? The tower had to be sturdy enough to hold a marshmallow on top.

 

The goal of the exercise was to demonstrate the importance of perseverance - one of the six essential skills taught by New York-based organization College for Every Student.

 

Alexandria was one of four Minnesota schools chosen for a grant for the organization's Brilliant Pathways program, which is dedicated to helping students from low-income rural and urban communities become college and career ready.

 

Chris Kragenbring is one of the high school's REACH teachers, along with Heather Netland. Standing for relationships, education, accountability, character and hard work, REACH is a program that serves students who need academic support.

 

"As a REACH team, we work hard to get kids to graduation and have a really high success rate," she said. "But then sometimes they are going on to college, which we push, and then they're plummeting (academically)."

 

Upon hearing about College for Every Student, Kragenbring and her colleagues knew it would be a good fit for REACH students, as well as some non-REACH students, and applied for a grant through the program. Along with schools in Rochester, Minneapolis and St. Paul, they were awarded a partial grant to bring the program to the school.

 

The grant covered half the cost of the program - $45,000 - while the rest had to be funded by the school.

 

"Bremer Bank came through hugely for us and provided $15,000 so we could start right away," Kragenbring said. Assistant superintendent of teaching and learning Rick Sansted worked on other funding.

 

The grant covers three years of the program. Twice per year, Program Director Elaine Dixon-Cross will visit the school. Dixon-Cross was in Alexandria on Wednesday, Feb. 21, and led students through exercises and discussion about perseverance.

 

"Perseverance is about how you get over the hard things that happen in your life," she said to the students. "All of us have an invisible backpack. ... In that invisible backpack is divorce, mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse. We all have them. What's in them is personal and private and who we choose to share that with is up to us. But if we are struggling and aren't persevering through those things, we have to reach out."

 

Dixon-Cross explained that one of the three core principles in College for Every Student is a pathway to college and career.

 

"A lot of student are underserved," Dixon-Cross said. "Their parents didn't go to school, so we want to be that role model for them, to teach them what their next steps are. They can go to college. It is an option for them if that is what they choose. And we hope that is what they choose."

 

The other two core principles of the program are essential skills (such as perseverance) and mentorship. Kragenbring and other staff members formed a committee to match REACH students up with both student and adult mentors.

 

"All these students named three staff people in the building that they would feel comfortable connecting to," Kragenbring said. "Our team sat down and assigned each student one of their people, including custodians, secretaries, the principals, teachers and paraprofessionals."

 

Of the grant money, $3,000 is allocated to taking students on college tours.

 

"We did take a group of seniors to ATCC," Kragenbring said. "But they're not all going to go there. We're planning to take some to the Fargo-Moorhead area since there are a few colleges there."

 

Emmett Marti, an Alexandria junior, says class periods such as the one Wednesday are helpful when it comes to thinking about the future.

 

"It's about team building with our REACH kids, as well as a couple new ones from the community at the high school," he said. "I want to be a teacher when I'm older so I want to ... get to a higher teaching program. The community here at the school helps a lot."

 

For Dixon-Cross, traveling across the country to different schools to assist students is a rewarding aspect of the job.

 

"The interaction with students is great," she said. "It's about being a part of their brilliant pathway, the exposure to college and career pathways. Some of them get exposure to jobs they never even knew existed."

 

For more information about College for Every Student, visit www.collegefes.org.