Learning beyond the classroom

My kids generally enjoy school, but there are times — Monday mornings, for instance — when they complain that school takes up too much of their lives. I can understand the sentiment, even though I don’t believe it’s true. If you account for holidays, breaks and weekends, the total number of hours they spend in a classroom is much smaller per year than the hours they spend exploring and experiencing the world outside of school.

Finding positive ways to use that out-of-school time isn’t a problem for them because they have multiple and varied interests, and they live in a family that has the ability to support their participation in summer and afterschool activities. But that’s not the case for many tweens and teens in Minnesota. 

According to Youthprise, a Minneapolis-based organization that works to increase and improve opportunities for learning beyond the classroom, 32 percent of Minnesota students in grades K-12 are responsible for taking care of themselves after school, and only 12 percent participate in afterschool programs. Youthprise estimates that more than half of Minnesota parents struggle to find things for their children to do when they’re not in school.

How kids spend that out-of-school time is important for both their social and academic development. Research shows that youth who participate in quality out-of-school programs acquire important life, social and communications skills, do better in school, and are healthier and happier. That’s why I’m glad to see that a growing number of schools, communities and organizations like Youthprise are working together to improve out-of-school-time activities for kids and make them more available to everyone. 

Leading the effort in St. Paul is Sprockets, a citywide network of more than 170 afterschool and summer programs. Sprockets was launched in 2011 by Mayor Chris Coleman, Superintendent Valeria Silva, and the Second Shift Commission community advisory group. It provides training, professional development, coaching and data sharing for 50 organizations that serve more than 7,000 youth throughout the city. 

“The Sprockets network is a network of support. The organizations feel that they are a cohesive entity, even if they are located in different parts of town, because of the shared language about how to provide quality programming,” says Sprockets Director Eyenga Bokamba.

The programs cover a wide variety of interests, from fine arts to sports to civic engagement. What they have in common is that all the program providers agree to undergo assessments of what they do well and where they could improve in four general areas: welcoming staff, spark (youth having fun), belonging, and safety. 

“Parents can think of it as a stamp of approval that they are undergoing these trainings and looking at ways to improve,” Bokamba says. “They are happy to have interactions and answer questions — that, to me, is an indicator of a dynamic system, and that’s exciting.”

The programs serve kids from pre-kindergarten age through high school. Bokamba says about 42 percent of participants are ages 10–14, and about 14 percent are ages 15–17. 

Parents can go to the program finder on the Sprockets website and plug in details like the type of program they’re looking for, the time of day, the area of town they live in, and the age of their child, and it will show them a list of different programs that fit those criteria. They can also find out whether there’s a fee, if scholarships are available, and if the program has bilingual staff members. 

Bokamba says the organizations work collaboratively and communicate with each other regularly. If it turns out that a particular program isn’t the right fit for a youth, he or she will be referred to another program. 

“Their feeling is, we’re going to do the homework to find the right fit because ultimately that’s what we’re about,” she says.

Skills the youth learn through these out-of-school programs — like how to navigate disagreements, how to articulate an opinion, and how to show leadership — are skills that will serve them well in their adult lives.

Bokamba says it’s exciting to be part of an organization that is helping the city reevaluate how it invests in youth, and what opportunities it provides for them to become involved, engaged citizens. 

 “It’s nothing but positive — the potential it has to reshape the entire way that we interact, and what we expect from young people in terms of their participation,” she said.

Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to jriggs@mnparent.com.