Youth crime has dropped steadily in Brooklyn Park since the northern suburb began ramping up after-school programs — from basketball to ballet to homework sessions — at Zanewood Recreation Center in 2009.

Crimes involving juveniles as suspects or victims have dropped every year since 2008, plunging from 1,158 serious and misdemeanor offenses that year to 634 in 2013, said Police Commander Mark Bruley.

The city’s work has drawn attention: Mayor Jeff Lunde was invited to speak about it at a National League of Cities conference last week in New Orleans.

Bruley points to a broad-gauge effort to offer positive activities and early police intervention when teens get off track. Officers are taught to recognize issues underlying youth crime and to refer troubled teens to four community resource officers who work full time with them and their parents, he said.

At school, liaison officers build relationships with students and ask the community resource officers to intervene with kids involved in fights, shoplifting or other minor crimes.

“We find out what’s going on at home,” Bruley said. “Maybe there’s a single mom who is struggling and needs help with parenting skills.” The officers may suggest parenting classes or mentoring or refer youths to Zanewood, Hennepin County, church or other programs.

The goal is to resolve problems “before we are looking at stabbed kids on the side of the road,” Bruley said. “Zanewood is our base camp.”

Homework comes first

Zanewood, a remodeled school at 7100 Zane Av. N., is located near low-income neighborhoods in the heart of the Zane Avenue corridor targeted for crime-reduction efforts. It’s open nine hours on school days and four hours a day on weekends. Many students at Northview Junior High walk a few blocks north to Zanewood after school.

Among them are ninth-graders Brandon Blunt and William Shields, both 15. They were attracted by friends who told them about pickup basketball games. They quickly learned that homework comes before fun and games at Zanewood.

Northview teachers send the rec center a list that shows whether students are current with their homework. If not, Zanewood sends them back to Northview to catch up.

“I was kind of shocked when they sent me back to do homework,” said Blunt, of Brooklyn Center.

“You figure that out and do your homework before coming here,” added Shields, of Brooklyn Park.

When the two friends arrive about 2:30 p.m., they leave their coats and backpacks in a secure room. They snack on crackers, cookies and juice. Then they head to a recently painted and carpeted youth lounge with a big-screen TV, courtesy of local businesses.

Teens can play pool, cards or video games or they might take a rap or hip-hop class. Other activities include group exercises to improve interaction abilities. Staff members are always present to talk, joke or offer help when students do more homework at 4:30 p.m. Blunt and Shields play basketball a few hours in the evening.

‘Well needed … well received’

Brooklyn Park’s population is almost half minority, with large numbers of Liberians, Asians and other ethnic groups. Many African-American and immigrant families need youth activities and support programs, said Wynfred Russell, who heads the local African Career, Education and Resource Center.

“A number of the young people face challenges,” Russell said. Some “are from families that are working double or triple shifts and don’t have a lot of time to spend with young people. … There is no question that the city programs at Zanewood and other programs are well needed and well received within the community.”

The city has invested more than $3 million in youth programs since Zanewood went seven days a week in 2009. This year’s budget is $710,829. Staff and programs have increased from 1.5 positions in 2009 to four full-time workers, five part-timers and as many as 40 seasonal jobs, said Michelle Margo, Zanewood’s manager.

Surveys of more than a thousand teenagers showed that participation in after-school activities rose from 26 percent in 2008 to 42 percent in 2012. That’s a 62 percent jump, said Jan Ficken, manager of the city’s recreation programs and services unit.

More than 1,000 teens attend the average of 20 programs a month offered at Zanewood, Ficken said. Another 85 teens on average attend classes offered two days a week at Northview and Brooklyn junior highs. In 2010, the city added open gym several nights a week at the Community Activities Center.

Youth activities include field trips to area colleges and universities to learn what it takes to get admitted, zumba, building birdhouses, photo club, karate and a rock climbing wall. Some of the activities were suggested by youths on Zanewood’s Teen Advisory Board, Margo said.

The students at Zanewood stay busy, said ninth-grader Blunt. Zanewood “can keep kids out of trouble,” he added.

He and Shields said the Zanewood staffers are good role models and talk through problems with them. Shields said staff members helped him calm down when he used to get angry. “Now I chill, relax and get to know people,” he said.