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Learning out of the (school) box

May 20, 2010

This post was written by Jon Delperdang, a student at the University of Minnesota who created an internship with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship around his interests in education reform and public policy.

What do a rock climbing gym, a community center, and a YMCA have in common? All three have thriving afterschool programs that teach young people more than meets the eye and passionate staff dedicated to serving youth.

As part of my internship with the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, I had the opportunity to talk to staff at Vertical Endeavors, the West 7th Community Center, and the YMCA about their programs and the learning opportunities they provide for young people in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Trust and responsibility

Vertical Endeavors is an indoor rock climbing facility with 18,200 square feet of climbing surface. It has a number of different programs for youth, ranging from high school climbing teams during the school year who meet a couple times each week to a partnership with the Boy Scouts of America for scouts to get their climbing merit badge to programs for internship groups to climb and work on leadership skills. They even offer a specific program for home schooled kids to climb together.

I talked at length to three different staff members—Jeff, Ryan and Noal—who all gave great insight into the impact of youth programs at Vertical Endeavors. While on the surface it is clear that climbing programs promote a healthy, active lifestyle for youth, they mentioned four additional key outcomes: 1) learning to trust and be trusted; 2) understanding the importance of safety and responsibility; 3) learning how to work together as a team; and 4) developing social skills.

Youth learn about all four of these things when climbing.  If you are unfamiliar with climbing, whenever someone goes up to climb there is always one person down on the ground (the “belayer”) keeping tension on the rope to prevent the climber from falling if he or she slips on the rock. Given the dynamics between the climber and the belayer, there is a lot of trust and responsibility put on the belayer to keep the climber safe.  This brings up the importance of safety both before the climbing to make sure all the equipment is funcitonal and for the belayer to be on alert during the climb.  These dynamics require the climber and the belayer to work together as a team to reach the top, with the belayer oftentimes offering encouragement, support, and advice (when asked) to assist their climber. As a result of having such a responsibility and because of the rapport climbers and belayers create over time, the Vertical Endeavors staff also mentioned how their youth climbers build a tightknit community within their group, which fosters the development of social skills they might not otherwise have the opportunity to develop.

Opportunities to explore

When you talk to Julie Murphy, who has been an educator for over 30 years and is the Family and Youth Programs director at the West 7th Community Center, it is clear that there are a lot of programs going on at West 7th and that Julie knows a lot about all the programs.  Some of the programs offered at West 7th include homework help, a Girl’s Circle, Second Step social skills classes, and fitness/sport offerings.  Julie mentioned the importance from her perspective of providing a wide range of opportunities for youth to explore, saying that youth having the opportunity to explore and learn different things is something she considers of great value to the development of youth, helping them to expand their horizons and gain a better understanding of all the things around them in this world.

Another clear message that comes across in talking to Julie is that the focus at West 7th is on building community. West 7th accomplishes this not just in its individual program offerings but also in its partnerships with other area organizations to provide programs. Examples of recent collaborations include partnering with Macalester College to have college students work with young people in grades K-12, having an artist from the Ordway teach kids techniques for creating moveable art, and partnering with the local public library to offer computer classes.

With her impressive emphasis on partnerships and building community, it is no wonder St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman appointed Julie to be on St. Paul’s Second Shift Commission, through which Julie is helping to realize the vision of creating learning campuses across St. Paul.


Melissa Cuff, the Senior Community Program Director for the YMCA’s Urban Youth Development Department at three St. Paul YMCA’s, understands the value of learning in an afterschool setting and the challenges some families have in paying for quality afterschool programs. In her role as the head of a department with a budget of over $300,000, Melissa and her staff work hard to provide numerous free programs to St. Paul youth at the three St. Paul YMCA locations. Some of the free programs offered through Melissa’s department include Multicultural Achievers, Youth in Government Model United Nations, Y Guys and Y Girls programs, Y Scholars, and a number of additional programs.

Melissa talked about having youth involved in multiple programs and having a “progression of involvement” from middle school through high school. Melissa mentioned specifically the importance of getting youth involved during the middle school years of 6th to 8th grade and working to keep the students engaged. Middle school is often the time where students either withdraw their efforts from their education or stay engaged for the long-term, she said. By providing a supportive environment and quality programs aiming to impact the lives of youth across a number of years, Melissa works hard to ensure students who might not have a supportive environment elsewhere can come to the YMCA and have caring role models to support them in setting the bar high for their academic and life goals.

In-school and out-of-school learning create a solid foundation

In talking with staff at Vertical Endeavors, West 7th Community Center, and St. Paul YMCA, it is clear to me that afterschool programs in St. Paul provide valuable learning opportunities for students outside the classroom and that it is important for those of us citizens who care about the development of our city’s youth to care about out-of-classroom learning at least as much as in-classroom learning.  The experiences youth have in these organizations supports them in their efforts to have a solid foundation from which to be productive, successful adults.  In working to provide valuable programs to support youth in their growth to be the best person they can be, youth workers allow students to explore themselves and their interests, providing more than just a space, but building communities. These efforts are something we can all aspire to provide.

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