How to get kids back in school

The following column originally was published by the Star Tribune, Minnesota’s largest daily newspaper, on October 7, 2023

Editorial counterpoint: How to get kids back in school

Engaging students in service-learning builds confidence, increases attendance.
By Khalique Rogers and Joe Nathan
OCTOBER 6, 2023 — 5:30PM


“Earlier this year, Minnesota policymakers adopted policies that mobilize insights, ideas and the energy of Minnesota K-12 students,” the writers say.

While we’re glad the Star Tribune Editorial Board cited student absenteeism as a major concern (“All hands needed to return kids to school,” Sept. 30), something important was left out of the editorial’s recommendations.

Fortunately, after hearing about extensive experience and University of Minnesota Prof. Andrew Furco’s research, state policymakers significantly expanded opportunities for K-12 students to combine rigorous classroom work with efforts to improve their communities — now.

Furco’s research found that in strong “service-learning” programs:

  • Attendance increases.
  • Academic skills improve.
  • Discipline problems decrease.
  • Previously frustrated or depressed students see themselves in more positive ways.

Moreover, service learning helps students learn a fundamental democratic principle: Rather than simply complain, you should help make things better.

Earlier this year, Minnesota policymakers adopted policies that mobilize insights, ideas and the energy of Minnesota K-12 students. These strategies recognize that, as one student explained, “allowing me to help fix local problems helped fix me.” This is an asset approach, in contrast to the widely used deficit approach.

Here’s a summary of what’s happened.

Minnesota legislators funded more counselors, social workers and tutoring programs. To complement them, the 2023 Legislature allocated $1 million to help start service-learning programs throughout the state, and Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB), which regulates teacher preparation, decided that all prospective educators must learn the rationale for and how to implement service-learning. (Copies of this legislation and policies can be found here.)

As the Star Tribune reported, Minnesota legislators also allocated millions of dollars to help public schools start programs in which students learn construction skills as they build or rehab homes for low-income families/individuals and families/individuals experiencing homelessness. We worked with policymakers on the student/home construction and PELSB initiatives. We’re offering a free Zoom meeting on Oct. 23 to discuss these opportunities — contact us for details.

House built by GAP students

A few examples of strong service-learning programs:

  • As part of a financial literacy class, St. Paul students solved hundreds of consumer problems that adults referred to them. When an article appeared about this class, one previously violent student pictured in the story told his teacher: “I never thought I’d be in the paper for something good.”
  • Cover of Brochure St Paul Open School students used to obtain cases
  • Students conducted research for community groups. For example, Grand Rapids students produced a brochure about area attractions commissioned by the local Chamber of Commerce. The chamber printed and distributed more than 10,000 copies.

Front of Grand Rapids student produced brochure                                               Back of Grand Rapids brochure showing map

  • Delavan first-graders learning to read produced short plays for preschool children and senior citizens. A 6-year-old told one of us: “It’s important to learn to read so you can get a bigger part.”
  • St. Paul GAP school students learn construction skills as they build homes for low-income families. One student testified that traditional schools “aren’t for me.” But after learning construction skills, “I finally felt like I had an opportunity and a future.”
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota high school students laid off by closing businesses won $30 million for themselves and fellow students, as part of their classwork at Venture Academy in Minneapolis and High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul. Many of the students were low-income teens using their salaries to help pay for family rent, heat and food. With assistance from Youthprise, their research identified federal legislation offering unemployment funds for people not eligible for state unemployment assistance.
  • As part of community studies, K-12 students helped design, gather materials for and build new playgrounds. Forty years later, a former “sand committee chair” proudly recalled the day, that as a 6-year-old, she watched six dump-truck loads of donated sand arrive.

We participated in several of these projects.

The Minnesota-based National Youth Leadership Council found that the most effective service-learning programs: allow students to select issues they want to work on, design and try implementing solutions; ensure service is connected to rigorous academics (like improving reading, writing or research skills); and include time for youth to evaluate and refine their efforts.

In a 2021 study, “Insights from a Year of Listening,” involving 20,000-plus students, youngsters pleaded for more opportunities to help improve the world.

Nothing, including service-learning, is a complete answer for absenteeism and other challenges. But greater use of service-learning in Minnesota can be a big help.

Khalique Rogers and Joe Nathan co-direct the Center for School Change (,