Youth plan still in early stages

Two months after Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s inaugural speech, in which he announced an ambitious plan to prevent New Haven youth from “falling through the cracks,” every aspect of the initiative remains in the early planning stages.

DeStefano proposed the three-part plan as a reaction to last summer’s highly publicized spike in crime committed by New Haven youth. The initiative would address the problem by keeping schools open for neighborhood children in the afternoons, developing and connecting mentoring programs in the city, and doubling the scope of the current “Youth at Work” program.

Certain parts of the plan will take more time to implement than others, said initiative co-chair Cynthia Rojas, who helps to head the subcommittee that directs the mentoring program. Ideally, she said, some schools will begin their extended hours next month, but the mentoring program might take two months longer because more logistics need to be worked out.

Despite the program coordinators’ optimism about the plans’ potential to discourage crime among New Haven youth, Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01 said she is concerned about the feasibility of the programs, especially from a financial perspective.

“I don’t think the mayor’s office knows where it’s getting the money yet,” Chen said last week. “We’re having an extremely tight budget season, and I don’t see how it will all come together.”

Rob Smuts ’01, DeStefano’s deputy chief of staff, said $1 million will be allocated to the youth initiative out of the proceeds from the sale of the Water Pollution Control Authority, rather than from the city’s general fund revenue. He said city officials did not feel comfortable including the initiative in this year’s budget because they were not yet aware of how the funds would be allocated.

“Right now, we’re trying to get everyone meeting and talking together about how [the money] is going to be spent and what it’s going to be spent on, but we’re talking about it and being aware of it as a separate issue,” Smuts said.

As a whole, the Board of Aldermen is supportive of the initiative and the funding that goes with it, Chen said. She said the board believes the initiative will go a long way toward giving New Haven youth options for activities they currently lack.

The open schools initiative aims to provide recreational activities and homework help for local youth at six New Haven schools. Eliza Halsey, another co-chair of the initiative, said the open schools program will be different from current after-school programs because its goal will be to serve all children in the neighborhood, even if they attend a different school.

But implementing the program may be a challenge, Chen said, because several aldermen have already tried to keep individual schools, such as the Timothy Dwight School on Edgewood Avenue, open after hours, and supervision and security issues have consistently got in the way.

“We haven’t been able to implement a similar program at Dwight, which is only one school,” Chen said. “I think it’s very ambitious to try to implement that program in every neighborhood at once.”

Rojas described the second part of the initiative, Mentor New Haven, as a campaign to encourage adult-youth engagement. At his inauguration, DeStefano said he would sign up to be a mentor for a minimum of two hours per month. He further pledged to allow members of his staff to use two hours a month of their own work time to become mentors.

Ideally, Mentor New Haven will spread far beyond the mayor’s staff and link adults throughout the community to a variety of agencies looking for volunteers, Rojas said. But she added that there is still a lot of recruiting to do.

“In order for this program to be successful, we need buy-in,” she said. “We need people who will look at this as a long-term commitment.”

Chen expressed her support for the mentoring program and called it a great idea. But she questioned the mayor’s strategy in implementing it.

“It’s nice to encourage your own employees, but it’s not the natural place to go,” she said. “The natural place is within the community, because these are the people the kids actually know.”

The third tenet of the initiative involves the existing Youth at Work program, a national program that involves placing youths in summer jobs. Halsey is serving as the liaison between the youth initiative committee and the Youth at Work staff. The short-term goal is to double the number of jobs available to youth this summer through Youth at Work.

Last year, 1,800 young people between the ages of 14 and 17 applied for positions with the organization, but only 473 were placed in jobs, Halsey said. In order to reach the goal of placing 1,000 teenagers this summer, Halsey’s sub-committee plans to raise visibility and support with the school system, involve local churches and more small businesses, and increase advocacy and marketing for the program.

“Matching 1,000 kids with positions in organizations and small businesses is not a small task, so we’re putting a lot of energy into this right now,” Halsey said.

Smuts said the mayor’s office is pursuing funding at the state and federal levels to assist youths with finding summer jobs. He said he would like to see allocations for youth employment included in the state budget in future years.

“It is a challenge, but [Connecticut] does have half a billion [dollars] surplus and the governor had raised youth violence as an issue she wants to address, so we’re telling her how to address it,” Smuts said. “We have the schools, so it’s a question of allocating resources, and we’re looking at any money that we do allocate as enabling broader things.”

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