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A summit on solutions: Students, educators gather to explore youth issues

BEMIDJI — About 30 people soundlessly worked Monday afternoon to divide themselves into small groups, based on shapes stickered to their backs.

Some groups were larger, others were pairs.

One girl didn’t have a group; she was alone.

Welcome back to high school.

“It’s a way to start talking about inclusion and exclusion, about the way we’re just kind of grouped in with other people, whatever way that may happen,” said Jessica Greer, facilitating a youth summit on the Bemidji State University campus. “Some people said they were just grabbed, like all of a sudden they were in a group, other people were wandering looking for a group and walking past other groups. I noticed some go, ‘Oh you’re not my shape,’ and they’d just move on, disregarding that person.”

The District 7 Bemidji Youth Summit is one of eight to be held throughout Minnesota to gather input and experiences on youth and education issues, including achievement gaps and the state’s dropout rate.

According to the Minnesota Alliance with Youth, a student drops out of school every 26 seconds in the United States; in Minnesota, it is one student every six minutes. Those who drop out are three times more likely to live in poverty and eight times more likely to go to prison.

“What we’re doing is … (working) to find some solutions to close the achievement gap and find how to do dropout prevention from within the community,” said Aimee Vue, a senior at Como Park High School in St. Paul. “In urban areas, in rural areas, sometimes the same solutions aren’t going to work.”

Vue is a third-year member of the Minnesota Youth Council, a network of 72 eighth- through 12th-graders and their adult partners who collaboratively identify and address youth issues.

Members of the Youth Council work on a variety of topics including education and outreach, policy and philanthropy.

“It’s something I really like,” said Heather Wellers, a freshman at New York Mills High School who became a Youth Council member this past fall. “I like hearing different things and different peoples’ perspectives. … I’m from a small town so everybody is pretty much thinking alike, but then you get lots of different, outside perspectives.”

The Youth Council is sponsoring the youth summits, which will all culminate in June in a statewide summit down in St. Paul.

Local summit participants, numbering about 30, ranged from high-schoolers to school officials to elected representatives.

“When you look back, and you look forward, and you look now, all of the worlds do really connect,” Vue said, speaking to the strength that comes from having multiple generations represented. “Some of the issues from the past and are still in the present. … It might look a little different, it might look a lot different, but it’s really important to keep in mind the perspectives from those in the past.”

Working together at tables, participants discussed their high school experiences, home lives, opportunities and challenges.

“Some of the main things (we’ve heard) is, we need to have ideas to address bullying and substance abuse,” Vue said, adding that many have requested additional local service-learning opportunities and volunteers willing to share their first-hand reports of range of issues. “Also, just having a lot of legislative support for early education.”