Champlin Park High School, in Brooklyn Park, was having a problem with students roaming the halls and getting into trouble after school let out.

The school turned to religion for the solution.

Now, a year-and-a-half later, thefts from lockers, noisy loitering, and playing cat-and-mouse with school security officers have dropped off dramatically. School officials attribute the turnaround to a cooperative effort between Champlin Park and a couple of neighboring churches to give the high school's restless youth a better way to channel their afternoon energies.

Anywhere from 20 to 40 students, most of them black males, are bused to nearby Grace Fellowship, a Baptist church, on Tuesdays, and another Baptist church, Edinbrook, on Thursdays. There, they can shoot hoops, eat snacks, play video games or just hang out with their friends from 3 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Then, they're bused back to Champlin Park, where they can catch the school-activities bus home.

"It helps you relax, and get away from school," said sophomore Naomi Davis, who was playing a video game Tuesday with her best friend, Veronica O'Neal. "Most people don't want to go home right after school. They want to hang around with their friends. At school, we can't text-message in class and we can't talk on our cell phones, so we don't talk to our friends much."

The large size of the school (it has almost 3,300 students), and the brief time to change classes also means that friends have a tough time connecting during the school year.

One of the prime movers of the after-school program was Champlin Park Spanish teacher Susan Germanson, who witnessed the high school's after-school problem in the fall of 2006 when she volunteered as a hall monitor.

"For the first two months, I was running after kids and catching them in the restroom," she said. "It got to that point."

And, Germanson said, $17,000 worth of items were stolen, mostly from student lockers, at Champlin Park that fall.

Figuring that something had to be done to make a connection with the kids, she put in a call to Grace Fellowship.

Church pastors said they would be happy to host an afternoon youth program.

Germanson accompanies the kids, who pay $5 for 15-day visiting rights to the youth program.

She signals when the day is over and it's time to board the bus, and makes sure everyone is accounted for.

She hasn't had to be a disciplinarian.

"These kids are not bad kids," Germanson said. "They just want a place to hang with their friends. They just don't want to go home."

In fact, the program has been so successful that Jackson Middle School, across the street from Champlin Park, decided to participate as well.

The first group of 59 Jackson kids showed up at Grace Fellowship last Thursday.

As a result of Jackson's participation, the Champlin Park kids now use Edinbrook as their Thursday hangout.

The after-school program hasn't caused any conflicts with Grace Fellowship, which has between 1,100 and 1,400 worshippers.

"It's just fabulous," Grace Fellowship youth pastor Dave Mergens said of the program. "They come here and they respect the property. ... It has given them a place to be themselves. Here, they are able to come and listen to music and talk and play in the gym and be kids."

Plus, Mergens said, Tuesday afternoons are "pretty much just dead time" at the church anyway, with the congregation more likely to use the facilities Sundays and Wednesdays.

At Champlin Park, after-school loitering is nowhere near as great as it used to be.

"It is close to being none," assistant principal Chris Nelson said. "It is running so smoothly compared to last year."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547