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White Bear YMCA partners with school to support students

YMCA staffer Courtney Baeyen sits Tuesday with Tawon George in a kindergarten class at L.C. Elementary School, where she works with children from a low-income apartment complex in Maplewood. The YMCA gives special attention to the kids, walking with them half a mile to school, helping in the classrooms, playground and cafeteria, and then running a program back home after school until 6 pm. (SCOTT TAKUSHI | PIONEER PRESS)

MAPLEWOOD — An effort to boost the achievement of low-income students at Webster Elementary School in Maplewood begins long before the first bell rings.

A half-mile from school, just before 8 a.m. on a rainy weekday morning, a couple fifth-grade boys thundered down the stairs into the lobby at the Maple Pond Homes apartments. Deavion Bosby plopped into a chair and a group of boys peered over his shoulder as he played a Batman game on a laptop he was taking to class for a presentation.

Girls arrived with folded umbrellas. Fourth-grader Jayla Brown bounced in with her second-grade brother Jaden. Their single mom had caught a bus more than an hour earlier to her job cleaning a hospital in downtown St. Paul. But even with her gone, they would get to school safely and on time through a unique collaboration between Webster and the YMCA.

“I think everyone is here,” said Ashley Redmon, a YMCA youth worker, as she took the hand of a kindergartner wearing a transparent rain coat dotted with red hearts.

On some mornings, Redmon and co-worker Courtney Baeyen need to knock on doors to find missing kids, but not this day. They herded the dozen students out the door and walked through the drizzle to school.

The YMCA’s program with Webster evolved to address what principal Mona Perkins calls “the opportunity gap” between low-income kids of color and more affluent, often white children.

The White Bear Y has been running an after-school program since 2002 at Maple Pond Homes, where three-quarters of the 170 apartments are subsidized through federal Section 8 and the majority of parents are African-American single moms. After Perkins arrived at Webster four years ago, she asked the nonprofit to do more.

Since fall 2013, employees of the Y have walked Maple Pond kids to school, organized 20 minutes of outdoor games before school for all students, helped in classrooms and ran games during lunch recess. After a two-hour break, they walk Maple Pond kids back to the apartment complex to oversee homework and playtime until 6 p.m.

The nearly dawn-to-dusk attention seems to be making a difference. It eliminated the longstanding problem of tardiness for Maple Pond kids, which means kids get school breakfast and start their day more relaxed. Absences dropped by nearly a third.

“We’ve seen kids in the program make good growth in reading,” Perkins said. “And really, what’s been amazing is the positive impact on their social and emotional development.”

“I think what’s really unique and what’s helped it become successful is that it’s truly partnership between the parents, the YMCA and us,” added Perkins, who heads a school where nearly nine out of 10 kids receive free or reduced price lunches. “Neither is trying to take the place of the other. We’re all working together.”

The YMCA runs morning and after-school programs throughout the Twin Cities at its branches and in schools. The Maplewood program is one of only three located inside a low-income apartment complex (others are in Minnetonka and Little Canada), and unique in embedding its part-time Y employees in a school for part of the day.

Perkins would like to see the program expand, but the Y is scrambling to fund even Maple Pond after a United Way grant wasn’t renewed, said White Bear Lake Area YMCA director Shane Hoefer.

The program costs about $85,000, not including administrative support, he said. The school and the city of Maplewood also kick in funds.

“We know this program works and makes a difference for kids,” Hoefer said.

At school

After school breakfast, Redmon headed to a first-grade class to listen to children read. Baeyen headed to kindergarten teacher Amy Tumbleson’s class, where earlier in the year she had taught her students how to tie their shoes.

“I’ve had quite a few challenging kiddos, and Courtney has established relationships with them,” Tumbleson said. “The Y program has been wonderful. They spend time after school with the kids doing homework, which is huge. It helps with communication with parents, with getting permission slips back.”

And it’s clearly helpful to have an extra adult.

When a little boy (he didn’t live at Maple Pond), started running and grabbing other kids’ books, Tumbleson sent him into the hall with Baeyen, where he kicked over a garbage can before Baeyen calmed him down.

The presence of Y staff at recess has also reduced outbursts and conflicts that used to spill over into class, Perkins said . Fewer children have behavior referrals, especially Maple Pond kids.

“A lot of kids don’t come with social emotional skills,” Perkins said. “Playtime is where we would see most of the issues. I needed to get adults to step in and engage with the kids so the kids could develop those skills.”

After school

After school, Redmon and Baeyen walked 15 children back to Maple Pond, chatting with them about everything from puddles, to how many days of school before summer, to what color Redmon should — hypothetically — dye her hair.

“Make it pink!” shrieked kindergartner Sabrina Gage.

“No, pink is a little bright,” Redmon said. “Purple is more subtle.”

The apartment management company provides a free room for the Y’s after-school and summer programs, with doors opening onto a shaded lawn. The kids did homework for 30 minutes or worked on extra math, reading and state capitol worksheets that the Y keeps in black binders labeled with each child’s name. Then they made fruit pizza with vanilla yogurt and kiwi, pineapple and berries.

“Here we have lots of fun, and I get to spend time with my friends,” said fifth-grader Ne’onna Quintana, as she helped herself to extra blueberries.

After the snack, the children headed outside to play.

“When I tell my co-workers about this, they say I am so lucky to have this program,” said Elena Washington, Jayla and Jaden’s mom.

On the days Washington starts her hospital housekeeping job at 7 a.m., her aunt comes to her apartment to get her four children ready for school. Washington is grateful she doesn’t have to ask her aunt to take them to school and watch them in the afternoon as well.

“It makes it so much easier for me,” she said. “I can come home and change my clothes and make dinner. We don’t have to worry about homework, because they do it here.”

Some parents are not working but still rely on the program as a haven for their children. Just before 6 p.m., Redmon walked 6-year-old Laniyah McDonald across the lawn to meet her mom Shanterica Nunn.

“She had a good day, and she just had a snack,” Redmon said, as she handed over Laniyah’s backpack.

Nunn had carpal tunnel surgery more than a year ago to treat problems caused by working in a chicken processing plant in Mississippi and exacerbated by lifting patients as a home health aid.

The damage was too deeply established, and now she can barely wash her own dishes or hold a job that requires use of her hands, she said. She is depressed, she said, and has a lot on her mind.

“It’s been real helpful to me,” Nunn said about the Y. “I know she’s safe, and they take really good care of her.”