St. Paul mayor works 'second shift'by Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
Two new resource centers opening this week in St. Paul will introduce high school students to college and career options. The centers are part of a broader, low-cost education initiative that has become Mayor Chris Coleman's most visible endeavor halfway through his first term.
While kids are occupied during the school day, Coleman thinks they need a place to go to after school. The mayor says it's up to cities to work what he calls the "second shift."
St. Paul, Minn. — Angel Maldonado boarded an old-fashioned school bus with his friends, Jose Rodriguez and Laking Franklin. The three Humboldt Senior High School began comparing notes on who had the superior three-point shot.
It was dark and icy on the city's West Side. The teens were headed to the Boys and Girls Club for a pickup game. The neighborhood's "circulator bus" offers free rides to libraries and recreation centers, weaving along the little neighborhood streets, past the taquerias and drafty old homes and Karina's Beauty Salon.
Angel says his grades jumped from a "C" average to a "B-plus" ever since he started going to the Boys and Girls Club for homework help. And he wouldn't have gotten to the club if it weren't for the bus. On nights like these, he used to just stay home.
"Sometimes it's below zero, and it's, 'Oh, forget it, I don't want to go,'" he said. "With the bus, we just get on there, and we're warmer, and we have more energy."
More than five years ago, city parks and recreation workers and community groups began thinking of ways to bring kids to places where they could learn and socialize with one another.
The bus started rolling after the McKnight Foundation agreed to pay for it. The concept worked so well that Coleman's staff secured private funding for another circulator on the city's East Side last summer.
"It's an obvious solution to a very complex problem," said Marnie Wells, the city's Second Shift coordinator.
Many of her solutions fit that description. Wells says the Second Shift programs cost the city little to nothing, and have more to do with delivering services differently rather than adding new layers of bureaucracy.
Take the No School Day Program. Last year, city officials opened 38 recreation centers on days when many school were closed for winter and spring breaks. Wells says the city wanted to look out for kids whose parents were at work and couldn't find daycare. More than 3,000 children have participated in the program.
"The research has shown that when parents feel that their kids are in a safe place and a productive atmosphere, they do better at work," she said.
Coleman spoke about some of these initiatives two weeks ago in Tuscon, Ariz., before a national network of policymakers who develop after-school programs for children. The mayor acknowledged some of his programs may not sound all that radical.
"As simple as it seems, it's just not happening," Coleman said. "It is stunning to me how little of this is going on around the country."
After-school programming is one of Coleman's most visible endeavors halfway through a quiet first term.
Some of his constituents are waiting to see the kind of big-development deals that typified earlier administrations.
Yet Coleman said giving kids opportunities after school and closing the achievement gap ties into those broader goals.
"If you don't make sure that the children you're raising in the community have the education skills they need to take jobs in those new companies you're hoping to attract to your community, then you're simply not going to be able to sustain any bricks and mortar efforts," he said.
St. Paul isn't alone in trying to cast a wider safety net for kids after school, said An-Me Chung, a program officer with the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation in Flint, Mich. Her group invited Coleman to speak at the Tuscon conference. She says kids benefit when cities and school districts create strong partnerships.
"More and more mayors are actually realizing that this is a tremendous opportunity to engage kids," Chung said. "The challenges are always around, 'Can we collaborate well together?' In places where you have visionaries for superintendents and mayors who are willing to work together, it's happening."
At the same time Coleman is launching new programs, he's unloading old ones. As part of his budget plan, eight of the city's 41 recreation centers are being out-sourced to other community groups. He's asking the St. Paul school district to manage three of the sites. Another will be managed by the Blackhawks youth soccer organization.
City parks officials say they figured out that some of the smaller, outdated rec centers aren't the neighborhood magnets they once were.
To that end, they've created "roaming rec teams," which bring activities to low-income apartment complexes and homeless shelters. They say those are places where they can find kids who need the programs the most.
- All Things Considered, 02/12/2008, 5:50 p.m.