Connecting Student Passions with the College Experience

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Caleea Kidder, dean of college programming at Hiawatha Academies in Minnesota

Last year, Minnesota celebrated its highest graduation rate on record with more than 83 percent of high school seniors graduating. But the rate doesn’t tell the whole story.

Just two-thirds of the state’s black and Latino students graduate high school. Minnesota’s black and Latinx students also trail their white peers in average ACT scores, and just one-quarter of black and Latinx adults over the age of 25 earn an associate’s degree or higher.

These alarming numbers are why I work at the Hiawatha Academies.

The school is dedicated to closing achievement gaps for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or zip code. But ensuring our students graduate is only part of the goal. We must also fully prepare them for college, help them navigate academic and non-academic challenges, and provide them with the support and opportunities they need to not only enroll but persist and thrive once they arrive on campus.

At last year’s National Association for College Admission Counseling conference (NACAC), I won a chance to nominate a student for an all expenses paid summer program on a college campus through Envision. I knew exactly which student would benefit greatly from exposure to college life.

Our work at the Hiawatha Academies is built on cultivating strong, authentic relationships with our students, gaining their trust, and pushing them to try things that build their college-going identity. I had been working closely with one student, Bemnet, to prepare her for applying to our school’s National Honor Society in 10th grade. She had the grades and the service record, but the committee decided not to admit her due to some behavioral challenges. It was difficult news for Bemnet to receive.

Over the next year, we focused on not only maintaining her strong academic standing but also on working toward becoming a stronger version of herself. She threw herself into pursuing both goals as best she could. When I heard about the summer programs Envision has developed on college campuses, I knew that Bemnet would benefit immensely from the experience and I believed she had put in the work to earn such an opportunity.

Given her interest in medicine, she selected the NYLF Medicine Program at the University of California-Berkeley. The program’s hands-on curriculum aims to advance a student’s interest in the medical field but also provide an experience that furthers their medical knowledge. Over the span of nine days, Bemnet learned life-saving medical techniques and furthered her passion to pursue medical school in the future. She lived on campus, met students with similar passions, and got to test drive the college experience. The program is structured in such a way that students can learn to be independent, while still having the support they need to be successfula balance we also work to achieve at the Hiawatha Academies.

With this warm and demanding school culture, we have seen students achieve greater things than any of us could have dreamed. I am proud to say that 100 percent of our first graduating class was accepted to college.

Our work as educators is to prepare students for every possible path. Whether a student ultimately decides to attend college is their decision and college is not for everyone. But it is our job to make sure every young person graduates high school with the knowledge and experiences so that they can be accepted to a four-year college/university with an affordable financial aid package. Then they can make the decision for themselves. Providing young people with opportunities to develop agency over their own lives is the greatest gift I believe we can give them.

The young people I work with express a desire to go to college, graduate, and be changemakers in this world. I am grateful to help offer them that chance every single day.


Caleea Kidder is the founding dean of students at Hiawatha Collegiate High School. She is currently the dean of college programming.

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