Opinion

New Schools = New Opportunities for Youth Groups

Here’s a fact that may not have yet crossed the radar screen of most youth workers: America is involved in a major wave of new school construction – by most accounts, the largest in recent memory. This building boom creates a strategic opportunity for youth organizations to craft what researcher Milbrey McLaughlin calls “new institutional arrangements.”

As new schools are built in communities across America, youth groups can explore joint-use agreements and other promising ways to make the best use of public facilities and reach more young people with youth development services.

Several factors spur this building boom. Policy-makers project that by 2008, public school enrollment will climb another 1.4 million, to 48 million. Furthermore, inattention to the physical infrastructure of schools over the past several decades is catching up with many districts: A recent General Accounting Office report says 14 million children attend public schools that need replacement or major repair. Third, a spate of court decisions mandating equitable financing of public education has compelled some state governments to make needed investments in their low-income schools, including the physical facilities.

All of this has created an unprecedented opportunity to rethink how we support the learning and development of our nation’s youth. In this time of declining resources for both education and human services, policy-makers, funders, educators and youth agency leaders are searching for more cost-effective ways to carry out our collective work. Many of the facility-based youth organizations – such as YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs – are talking about “getting out of the real estate business.” Leaders of capital campaigns are feeling the squeeze of tough financial times. And practitioners and parents alike increasingly recognize the need to extend children’s learning opportunities by engaging young people in constructive activities during the non-school hours.

With these factors as background, many innovative construction projects that bring schools and youth agencies together in one building are taking shape. One of the best examples is the Metcalfe Park Project in Milwaukee, a three-way partnership linking the public schools, Boys & Girls Clubs and the city. These three institutions came together at the planning table several years ago to design and finance a new facility that houses an elementary school, a youth club and a recreation center. The partnership is governed by a joint use agreement hammered out during the planning stages.

According to Dan Stefanich, who was the director of operations at the Milwaukee Boys & Girls Clubs during the project’s design phase, the joint planning that took place was the most critical component of the work. “At some point in the process,” Stefanich observes, “the members of the design team started using the word ‘we,’ and I knew our planning group had turned a corner.”

The John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary School in St. Paul, Minn., represents another creative alliance, initiated by Achievement Plus, a collaboration involving the public schools, the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, the city and Ramsey County.

The group secured funding from the Minnesota state government to revitalize a vacant high school building in a low-income neighborhood. As community leaders and local residents came together to consider how to improve education and community life in this area, it wasn’t long before the eventual partners envisioned a win-win scenario: The school district and the local YMCA would share a common site, and the YMCA would conduct a capital campaign to build a state-of-the-art facility that includes a gymnasium and swimming pool for use by the students and YMCA members.

The planning group recruited a variety of community partners to provide comprehensive health care, housing services, tutoring, extended learning opportunities, mentoring and family services. According to Lynnell Thiel, director of student and family support for Achievement Plus, this new institution has been a major contributor to the revitalization of the surrounding community.

These are two of many exciting examples of new strategic alliances that accomplish several worthwhile goals at the same time: serving young people, strengthening communities and saving tax dollars.

Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at The Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: janeq@childrensaidsociety.org.

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