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MDE commissioner urges eighth-graders to prepare for high school

Alice Seagren, who has been the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education since 2004, spoke to area eighth-graders at Cass Lake-Bena High School about preparing for the ACT exam and registering for high school courses. Cass Lake-Bena School District was one of only five school districts to host a "Your Choice, Your Future" student seminar this month in the state. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Alice Seagren, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, told area eighth-graders to "get excited for high school" Wednesday at Cass Lake-Bena High School.

Cass Lake-Bena School District was one of five districts in the state chosen by the MDE to host a "Your Choice, Your Future" student forum to encourage eighth-graders to prepare early for taking the American College Testing, or ACT exam, and to register for more courses than what is required by the state.

Also speaking at the student forum was Bemidji State University student Gabriel Wakanabo, teacher and inspirational speaker RunningHorse Livingston and ACT program director of elementary/secondary services Rae Jones. Guest speaker Autumn Brunelle, a senior at Cass Lake-Bena High School, was absent.

Eighth-graders from Pine Point (Ponsford), Detroit Lakes, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, Cass Lake-Bena, Northland-Remer and Red Lake school districts also attended the forum.

According to Seagren, Cass Lake-Bena School District was chosen to host the student forum because the district participates in pre-ACT tests, called Explore and Plan.

Typically, students take the Explore exam in the eighth or ninth grade. Students can take the Plan exam as 10th-graders and the ACT as juniors or seniors. All three test students in English, math, reading and science. The material tested in each program gets progressively more difficult.

"(Cass Lake-Bena School District) has the opportunity of working with us on some strategies to encourage middle school kids that are going into high school to use these tests to get a sense of where students are at academically and then help them plan for their high school courses," Seagren said.

The MDE is in the process of implementing a statewide strategy to prepare eighth-graders to register for high school classes, Seagren said. Currently, students in Minnesota are required to take four years of English, three years of math, three years of science, three and a half years of social studies and one year of art. It is the department's hope students will choose to enroll in core classes beyond what the state recommends.

Seagren told the audience of eighth-graders at Cass Lake that taking extra core courses will give them a better chance of getting into college and to become successful.

"We know if you take a certain series of courses in high school you have a much better chance of being admitted into a college and doing well," Seagren said after her talk. "Our message is to tell eighth-graders to think big, to not be afraid to try new things and to stretch themselves academically."

But with so much emphasis being placed on districts to make Annual Yearly Progress currently, some eighth-graders find it difficult to think early about college-readiness exams such as the ACT. Thinking about going above and beyond often becomes a lower priority for students transitioning from one school to another.

Seagren said "Your Choice, Your Future" forum is one of several strategies the state is implementing.

"This is not the silver bullet to talk to some kids for a couple of hours and assume this will solve all the problems," she said. "But what we're trying to do is multiple strategies. We're going to provide a lot of resources and we're going to help look at curriculum. Once we've got the kids engaged, we need to help them connect with their future. We have to get them believing in themselves."

Seagren said hearing Livingston's and Wakanabo's speeches were inspiring and good examples for the students to listen to.

"We have tons of eighth-graders who have so much potential waiting to be awakened," Seagren said. "We just need to get these kids to think about their future more. Sometimes failure teaches you more than success. It teaches you to be resilient and to keep trying. We're trying to build a comprehensive process. This is just one little sliver of sending the message."

The transition periods when students move from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school are critical years, Seagren added.

"If students fail in ninth grade, if their attendance starts to drop off, if they start to fail courses, we'll lose them," she said. "That's why we are talking to the kids now to get them thinking. There's a lot of potential in this room."