December 29 2023

Achieve team deepens career and college readiness support for MPS CAP students

Achieve team with MPS CAP staff

Each year, Achieve Twin Cities provides comprehensive career and college readiness support for over 18,000 students in 28 Minneapolis and Saint Paul public high schools to help equip them for careers, college and life. In Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), these services have long been embedded in the district’s comprehensive and specialty high schools – and now they are also available to all students in MPS Contract Alternative Program (CAP) schools.   

CAP schools offer specialized support to approximately 1,200 MPS students who don’t find success in traditional school models. These seven schools are operated by community agencies – in partnership with MPS – that hire school staff and provide educational programs. Each school has its own unique focus and approach that is designed to help students earn their MPS diplomas through customized, experiential and hands-on learning, smaller class sizes, extended and flexible schedules, and strengths-based, culturally-specific and community-centered approaches. 

In 2021, Achieve Twin Cities was invited by MPS to develop programming to address the needs of students who had disengaged from school during the pandemic. After meeting with various district leaders, Achieve career and college readiness (CCR) team leaders chose to partner with the Contract Alternative Program to ensure additional support for all CAP students in reengaging in school, finishing their credits for graduation, and envisioning and planning for the future through more consistent career and college readiness programming. 

Achieve had historically provided CCR support to various CAP schools since 2006, and our CCR leadership team embraced the opportunity to build a renewed and stronger partnership with the program. In preparation for this expanded work, Achieve hired Jessica McLennon and Haley Wireman-Soba, two new coordinators who had specific experience working with students who navigate multiple barriers. They began their work in fall 2021 in seven CAP schools and one MPS alternative school, each working in their assigned four schools one day per week.

Achieve CAP career and college readiness coordinators   

Jessica McLennon is a former youth and family advocate at The Bridge for Youth, where she supported youth who were experiencing varying levels of crisis, helping them to define the best interventions to meet their needs and articulate those needs to parents/guardians and liaisons. Jessica also served as a coach at Hired, where she connected students who were part of county systems (teen parent, foster care and juvenile probation) with career and college training opportunities. Jessica holds a bachelor's degree in social work and a master’s degree in public health. 

Haley Wireman-Soba was hired for this role given her extensive experience serving unhoused youth in Twin Cities shelters and supporting young people in overcoming challenges during their educational journeys. Before joining the Achieve team, she worked within a homeless shelter system, managing its K-12 educational department. In this role she worked with youth, their families and public schools to help students stay and thrive in school. Haley holds a master's degree in educational policy and is currently pursuing her doctorate in education with an emphasis on homeless and highly mobile youth education.  

CAP schools supported by Jessica and Haley

Loring Nicollet Alternative School (operated by Project for Pride in Living) provides a community that embraces all individuals with respect for race, gender identity and expression, class, sexual orientation, ethnic background, religious and political beliefs, age, and ability. LNAS is a space where staff create a unique, tailored environment that supports students in their learning journey.  

Menlo Park Academy (operated by Eastside Neighborhood Services) offers a full range of subjects required for graduation, each with a focus on high-interest, real-life learning. Classes are designed to meet the needs of many kinds of learners, including visual, linguistic, kinesthetic, auditory and interpersonal learners. 

MERC Alternative High School (operated by Project for Pride in Living) supports students' growth into skilled and productive citizens capable of succeeding and making positive contributions in their community, in their education and in their family lives. MERC meets students where they are and walks alongside them to provide the tools to set and reach their goals for the future and enhance their community. It also strives to guide students to make safe choices in all aspects of their lives.  

NaWAyEe Center School offers experiential and transformational education that is grounded in indigenous lifeways and a love of learning. The school aims to inspire a sense of place and direction within the circle of life, from which students discover strength, purpose and vision. It offers a Medicine Wheel Health Program, small classes that allow students to learn more about Ojibwe / Dakota language, cultural arts and music traditions, and opportunities to strengthen cultural pride through a culturally contextualized learning environment.  

PYC Arts and Technology High School (operated by Plymouth Christian Youth Center) provides young people with a solid path to graduation and beyond, delivered by talented, dedicated staff members who are passionate about their success. PYC offers strategic college, career and life planning services, a free school-based health clinic, after-school tech time at the Capri Best Buy Teen Tech Center, and onstage performing and backstage training at the Capri. 

Takoda Prep (operated by American Indian OIC) is founded on the wisdom and worldview of the American Indian people. It helps all students make advancements in core academic competencies while maintaining a strong connection to American Indian culture. The school features a unique, small class environment that allows students to receive individualized instruction and support from the Takoda Prep learning community. Students can maintain a connection to their home school for extracurricular activities such as prom, athletics, and graduation ceremonies. 

VOA High School (operated by Volunteers of America) helps students build a pathway to graduation through engaging curriculum, flexible scheduling, small class sizes, and on-site supportive services. It offers students a chance to make up credits and graduate at their own pace, and achieve success in school, careers, and life via project-based learning. Project Based Learning helps students build knowledge and exercise their creativity while engaging in real-world problem solving or answering complex questions.  

The Achieve CAP coordinators also provide CCR support for the Minneapolis Academy and Career Center, a Minneapolis Public Schools alternative school that provides opportunities for students to focus on college and career success by offering flexible scheduling, small class sizes, and recovery credit-earning opportunities. MACC partners with Minneapolis College to help students define their career pathways and work towards an associate’s degree while getting a high school diploma. 

Achieve's programmatic approach and partnerships

Students in CAP schools often face multiple barriers and challenges. Many students are self-supporting and independent and all are behind in credits toward graduation. Some are parenting and a high percentage are unhoused.  

Providing customized support to students in addressing these challenges while planning for the future is central to Jessica and Haley’s work. They prioritize working one-on-one with seniors who are close to recovering their credits and graduating, and they connect them with a wide variety of career opportunities, postsecondary plan options and other community support through field trips, speakers and many other opportunities.  

“Postsecondary planning is the beginning of a transition period to adulthood," says Jessica. "I spend a lot of time prepping students for the real world and what will be expected from them. What may surprise people about my work is that these students are just like students in larger high schools. Many are extremely academic and just had a hiccup along the way, especially during the pandemic."

Also essential to the success of this work is strong relationship-building with individual school teams and district staff. Now in their third year of supporting CAP schools, Jessica and Haley have developed close collaborative relationships with staff at each of their eight school sites, adapting their approaches and support strategies to better align with the unique focus, communities, individual environments and needs of each school.  

MPS partner feedback on this work

Crystal Ruiz, who serves as the PYC Arts and Technology High School college and career readiness manager, says having Jessica at PYC has been a tremendous asset to her school. “Jess works one-to-one with all of our grads so they have a concrete plan after high school. She also takes the time to get to know them, which makes them feel at ease.  She even continues to follow up with students that have already graduated. Jess has been such a great addition to our team!”  

Casey Wahl, associate director of education at the Loring Nicollet Alternative School, says that with Haley’s presence at her school, “Students have access to an additional support staff to help them realize their goals. Haley provides a safe space for young people to ask real questions, recognize their potential and pursue future opportunities. This individualized support is unmatched.” 

Jessica and Haley are also seen as integral members of the MPS district CAP team, providing crucial support and insight into what is happening at each school site. “Having these Achieve coordinators on the CAP team for the past two years has been such a valuable addition to our team,” says Melissa Terry, the MPS licensed school counselor for the Contract Alternatives Program. “Their focus on our potential graduates helps give students a focus for their future and allows for a smoother transition from high school to their next step in life. They have also provided so many fun and exciting college and career opportunities for our CAP students!” 

Achieve's long-term commitment to this work

Expanding our programming to students in the MPS Contract Alternative Program has been crucial in ensuring that all MPS students – regardless of their success in a traditional high school – have the support they need to create a vision of their future that they are excited and confident about.  

“What I enjoy most about this work is supporting students through one of the most important milestones in their life,” says Jessica. “And what I value most about my students is their resiliency. They are so motivated to succeed and not let the hardship that led them to an alternative school stop them from being successful. It’s great to be a part of their journey.”  

Haley says she finds her relationships with CAP schools students and staff to be especially meaningful. “Especially because of the CAP schools’ smaller size, I have the opportunity for much greater personal connection with students and can provide more wholistic support and care for those who are facing barriers,” she says. “What’s really special to me is helping students to develop the realization that they really can go to college, supporting them in finding careers that are meaningful and attainable, and watching them grow and gain confidence.”  

Achieve CCR program strategy manager Amanda Justen has been working closely with our expansion to CAP schools from the very start, and she’s excited to watch this collaboration grow and flourish. "I’m looking forward to deepening our programming and partnership with the MPS CAP team," she says, "and looking for even more resources and opportunities to help students find postsecondary paths that excite them!"

See our Achieve coordinators at work in MPS CAP schools

PYC Arts & Technology High School

PYC Arts & Technology High School

Achieve coordinator at Center School

NaWAyEe Center School

Minneapolis Academy and Career Center staff

Minneapolis Academy and Career Center

Achieve coordinator at Center School

NaWAyEe Center School

PYC Arts & Technology High School

PYC Arts & Technology High School

Achieve coordinator with student at Loring Nicollet school

Loring Nicollet Alternative School

Achieve Twin Cities CCR sign

Loring Nicollet Alternative School

Achieve and MPS CAP teams

Achieve and MPS CAP teams