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After-School Specials: Innovative Programs Engage Kids Before They Go Home

On a warm summer afternoon on West Broadway Avenue, a group of teenagers is huddled in a meeting room, planning an upcoming new-client presentation for Cookie Cart, which sells about $350,000 worth of fresh baked goods every year to area businesses, churches, and non-profit organizations.

Over in St. Paul, an equally enterprising group of teens has gathered to teach today’s cycling safety class at Cycles for Change, a hands-on-advocacy organization and community bike shop.

And in a third-floor rehearsal space above the giant blue Cupcake coffee cup on University Avenue, a group of teens at Youth Performance Company is running through the opening number of their bullying-prevention musical, MEAN.

Welcome to the new world of out-of-school time, where young people have the opportunity to strengthen their skills and pursue their passions. In the Twin Cities, it’s a field that’s garnering increasing amounts of attention, respect--and funding.

Two Thousand Hours

“Kids spend 2,000 hours a year out of school,” says Nou Yang, Program Manager for the Youth Leadership Initiative at the Wilder Center for Communities, the largest nonprofit social services agency in St. Paul. “The perception used to be that after-school activities were just babysitting or playtime, but I’m noticing more of a critical mass in recognizing the value of what exists in that time between formal education ending for the day, and kids getting back to their homes.”

Yang’s program, which develops leadership skills among a diverse group of St. Paul teens, is one of 101 organizations that have received support from $2.1 million in funding from the two-year-old Youthprise nonprofit organization. Created by Minneapolis-based McKnight Foundation as an intermediary in the field of out-of-school time, Youthprise’s first round of grantmaking, a one-year investment to expand access to quality learning opportunities, has made a big splash in the relatively small pond of groups that meet the needs of kids in the times they aren’t in school.

Out-of-School Takes Off

According to Youthprise President Wokie Weah, her organization exists to increase the accessibility, sustainability and innovation of opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. “We’re focused on helping young people, especially those who are traditionally underserved, have access to affordable, quality learning opportunities during out-of-school time,” she says.

The concept has taken off in recent years, especially since kids’ and parents’ schedules are often in conflict. With a school day typically much shorter than an average working day, kids are at increased risk of getting into trouble in afternoons and summertime. Keeping kids safe, plain and simple, was the impetus behind many early after-school efforts. These days, there are still programs that offer augmented academics and supervision, but there is also more original and robust programming, often with opportunities for kids who haven’t necessarily excelled in the traditional K-12 system.

Cookies, Bicycles and Theater

Surely the tastiest program to receive money in this round of Youthprise grantmaking is The Cookie Cart, which began thirty years ago when Sister Jean Thuerauf opened her North Minneapolis home to neighborhood kids, helping with homework and baking cookies as a way to help them escape gang recruitment. It’s now a full-blown wholesale and retail bakery in North Minneapolis. Executive Director Matt Halley says, “They are great cookies, but that’s just a byproduct. Our primary focus is to help the neighborhood’s young people get the skills they need to be successful in life.”

Another program that turns a natural interest into a skill-building opportunity happens at Cycles for Change, which Jason Tanzman, Development and Outreach Director, describes as “the intersection of transportation, social justice, and affordable access.” His organization helps low-income kids get access to free or low-cost bicycles, hires them for an Apprentice Mechanic program, and trains them to become “co-teachers” of bike safety at community events. “Most of the jobs that teens can usually get hired to do are dead ends,” he says, “so we offer them a chance to get a paying job that also provides training and skill development.”

But learning beyond the classroom isn’t just about business skills. Sometimes it’s a way for kids to pursue the kind of creative passion that never shows up on a standardized test during the school day. Another Youthprise grantee is Youth Performance Company (YPC), which is preparing for the company’s 24th season of youth-driven theater.

Artistic Director Jacie Knight says that input from her Young Artists’ Council makes a difference in just about every aspect of the way her organization is run. “The future comes in my door every afternoon at four o’clock, and the future is always hungry,” Knight says with a laugh. She credits council members with helping her get a glimpse into what’s really going on in the hallways of high schools all over town. When she realized she was hearing an increase in stories about the bullying that kids were witnessing and falling victim to, she commissioned the original musical, MEAN, which takes bullying prevention as its theme.

“It’s what I heard from the kids that helped me understand what a huge problem this is for our community,” Knight said. (After a successful run last year, the show will return in at the end of September and into October, which is National Bullying Prevention Month.)

Youth-Fueled Energy

YPC’s intense youth engagement is typical of the sort of programs that Youthprise wants to support, says Weah, who reports that her organization enlisted its own group of youth advisors to assist in selecting grantees during this round of funding. “It’s so important to engage with young people in designing and architecting their own future. They have a strong sense of what is relevant and how they learn best. If you don’t have that perspective, what you have won’t work. They have to be at the heart of the design,” Weah says.

Weah is optimistic about the impact of youth-fueled energy on the community at large. “Minnesota is resource-rich in the area of youth development,” she says. “Young people are not separate from the places where they live in--and, in fact, they will inherit these communities. That is not to say that other states are not doing good work, or that we don’t have room for improvement here, but our state is really a thought leader, and is very progressive in the ways we engage with young people. We have the infrastructure in place in a way a lot of other places don’t, and we’re connecting to a strong asset-based model.”

Julie Kendrick's last article for The Line was a discussion of public broadband in the Twin Cities and the nation, in our July 18 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Youthprise:  From left: , special projects intern Tyler Hamblin, director Wokie Weah, and  communications and policy intern Erica Deanes.

Students craft cookies for the Cookie Cart bakery.

Cookie Cart's retail shop in North Minneapolis

Noah Tofte (left) works with an intern at Cycles for Change

A scene from MEAN, an original musical from Youth Performance Company

A song from MEAN

Photos by Bill Kelley, except for MEAN production shots, which are courtesy Youth Performance Company
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