The sign at Hope Youth Center that says "School Zone — Keep Voices Down" is hardly necessary. The 28 students tucked in cubicles there on a recent morning were nearly silent as they focused on online classes.

"All these kids wanted was a quiet space to work," said Mary Claire Francois, one of the co-founders of the center in Minneapolis. "But we also know that they need more and we're here to offer that."

Since November, the Hope Youth Center has been operating its community learning pod in a donated former office space in the Midtown Exchange building. But now, faced with few ongoing funding sources and the gradual reopening of area middle and high schools, the center's leaders — who have so far been mostly volunteering their time — must decide how to proceed and what to offer this summer and fall. Minneapolis Public Schools plans to bring middle and high school students back into classrooms in mid-April.

"These needs aren't just going to go away," said Valerie Quintana, another co-founder.

Part of Quintana and Francois' goal in creating the center, which formed out of their efforts to serve the community after George Floyd's death, was combating the potential growth in the achievement gap during the pandemic.

During distance learning, many families formed small learning pods with friends or neighbors to help their students learn online, and some even hired tutors. But not all families have the financial means or ability to create such pods. Nearly all the students who attend the center are people of color and qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Families opting to keep their older children in remote learning still need an option like the center, Quintana said.

"Students in south Minneapolis have been through so much this year," she said. "We wanted to make sure they had the same resources that people just two miles away were able to provide for their children."

In February, the Hope Youth Center's leaders worried they would have to close the doors due to insufficient funding. A crowdfunding effort has raised about $13,000, easing the immediate concern.

"We're cobbling together funding, but we have to figure out how to pay ourselves at some point," Quintana said. "Our agenda is all about hope, but behind the scenes, we're really just trying to figure it all out."

Leaders of the YMCA of the North are also in the process of deciding what to offer for educational support this summer and fall. When most districts were in distance learning last fall, the YMCA was operating more than 20 sites that offered a space for students to complete their online work and participate in other activities.

That has since dropped to just three sites: one in St. Paul and two in Minneapolis.

Operating the pods helped strengthen partnerships between YMCA staff and area school districts, said Dave Grote, the district child care supervisor of the YMCA of the North.

"We're in dialogue with the schools now as they decide whether they'll be offering summer school programs," he said. "We will work with them to see how we can work together or how the Y can step in to offer programs for students who need them."

Quintana, Francois and fellow co-founder Marni Lewis-Harvey are also in touch with school social workers and community organizations about what summer programming could look like, provided they have the funding.

The two dream of someday creating a full community center in south Minneapolis to serve students, families and organizations. In some ways, the Hope Youth Center has already become that for students.

Meals are provided and once they finish their work, students can do crafts, play games, or read a book in cozy corner. Some evenings, they can stick around to watch a movie.

Heaven Sparkman, 14, said her grades have gone up in the two weeks she's been attending the center.

"I can actually get my work done now," she said. "And it's a place where I can just be myself."

Sparkman's mom, Princess El, who is now working part-time at the center, said it's been a "blessing from God" for parents who, for a variety of reasons, don't want to send their child back to in-person learning but want them to have a safe and focused place to work and feel supported.

"It's so important that this place is here," she said.

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440