Grant program pays dividends in Brookyn Center

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 25, 2012 - 4:54 PM

A federal grant funds after-school classes in Brooklyn Center that constructively engage students, and help build skills for life.

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Left to right: Students Bruce Aguilar ( background, blue shirt, 7th grade), Dacia Mitchell ( left with purple shirt, 11th grade), Ashley Koudou ( white shirt wth black sleeves, 10th grade0, Melodie Hunt (8th grade, brown shirt ) and Grace Bockarie ( right closeset to camera, 9th grade) practice a scene in a play at Brooklyn Center High School. Students Bruce Aguilar (Brooklyn Center, MN on September 19, 2012.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Judging by his rehearsal performances as Haemon, the king's son in "Antigone," you'd never guess that at this time last year Ranae Hester's stage fright was so severe he felt that he "had no words. Nothing in my mind came out of my mouth," he said.

That anxiety surfaced in class, where, for years, the Brooklyn Center sophomore tried to be invisible so teachers wouldn't call on him, and where he felt too shy to make friends.

"I said to myself, if I could go through at least five plays, I'd be OK," he said.

"Antigone" is his sixth play and Haemon his biggest role. He's forging relationships with his teachers, and made new friends.

"This year, I feel way better," he said. "I have new friends, and my relationships with my teachers and friends got stronger."

The after-school drama program at Brooklyn Center High School is possible because of the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant the district has received since 2007. Brooklyn Center School District officials were just notified that the district was approved for another $400,000, three-year grant to provide free academic, athletic and enrichment programs for middle and high school students. The program is starting slowly this month, but will be going full force by early October, with after-school tutoring in core subjects and enrichment classes on eco education, the arts, service projects, software certification and more, said Patrice Howard, Brooklyn Center Community Schools district manager.

This year, the district is adding post-secondary counseling, college essay and test-prep help, an important addition because during school hours the high school has only 1.5 positions for school counselor.

"It's a small district, and we don't have as many resources as some other districts," Howard said. "If we didn't have this grant, it's sad to say we wouldn't be able to meet the needs of our students or families in our district. So, thanks be to this grant."

As far as the students are concerned, the official kickoff couldn't come too soon.

"They get it," Howard said. "They're waiting. They're knocking on our coordinator's door."

Families will benefit, too; the grant will support family and community nights, and cooking, computer and exercise classes for adults.

"This is a community school," Howard said. "We value the community itself, and we want to make sure we are living up to this model. ... These programs typically cost hundreds. It's free."

Though the district's goals are academic, some of the outcomes are even more pragmatic, just because it's something for older students to do, said Brooklyn Center Police Juvenile Officer Colleen Bouta. The 21st Century Program may play a role in a larger effort over the past few years to address juvenile crime in the city. Between 2007 and 2011, juvenile arrests were down 11 percent. Violent crime arrests were down more than 46 percent.

"Give them someplace safe to be, and give them something constructive to do," Bouta said. "That won't necessarily correct behavior, but it will give them two hours less free time after school to do something stupid, because to quite frank that's what they're going to do.

"Individually, those things seem minimal, but on a larger scale I think it's incredibly important," Bouta said.

Last week, four girls and three boys practiced the opening scenes of "Antigone," in an empty auditorium. Drama teacher Julian McFaul directed informally, with laughter, play and big gestures.

"I want you to explode," he said. "Make mistakes by adding too much rather than adding to little."

It's different from drama class, even, said junior Dacia Mitchell, who plays the Messenger. "It's a lot more relaxed and fun," she said. "People after school want to be there."

Like Hester, she and Grace Bockarie said the experience was helping them shed their shyness.

"By me doing this, I'm revealing my true self," said Bockarie, a ninth-grader who is playing the title role. "I'm opening up."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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