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‘Hot Cheetos’ and cool philanthropy target importance of after-school programs

The catchy video by North Minneapolis students, supported by a growing body of research, shows the potential impact of high-quality after-school programming.

The now-famous 'Hot Cheetos and Takis' video was created at the Nellie Stone Johnson Beacons Center, an after-school program.

By now, you must have seen the Y.N.RichKids’ hip-hop video, “Hot Cheetos and Takis.” The pop culture oracles at Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and Grantland all decreed it “the jam we’ve been searching for all summer.” Three weeks after the song was uploaded, nearly 2 million YouTube viewers agreed.

Takis are rolled tortilla chips that come in three flavors, Fuego, Salsa Brava and Crunchy Fajita. Fuego, which is hot chili and lemon in the purple bag, is the original and most beloved.

The ode to them is five minutes of infectious, tightly produced beats by a crew of precocious North Minneapolis kids who love their snacks and love to rap. You can view it on YouTube, or if you’d rather skip the ad, you can buy it at the iTunes store for 99 cents.

I’d suggest buying it; you’re going to play it over and over. While you listen, this column will work its way closer to its point, which is that Y.N.RichKids could also be the poster crew for a local effort to measure the link between after-school enrichment, academic achievement and social and emotional well-being and to win providers of this type of programming a formal seat at the education policymaking table.

beacons mpls logoThe celebrity snack-rappers created their video at the Nellie Stone Johnson Beacons Center, which is located in Minneapolis Public Schools’ Nellie Stone Johnson Community School. It is one of eight locations where the YMCA’s Beacons Minneapolis offers after-school and community programming. The local effort is an offshoot of the successful New York City Beacons Initiative, which has been copied in four other cities.

Among other activities, the NSJ Beacons program offers the North Community Beats and Rhymes Program, which is where the Y.N.RichKids and their compadres, the NSJ Crew. Over the last three years, Beats and Rhymes artists have produced eight albums, most notably NSJ’s fourth, “School House Rap,” released in May. This last is available for download for free, as are several other NSJ Crew titles.

Dig even a little bit into NSJ’s oeuvre and you will realize that you’re looking at the spot on the map where engagement hits learning. These raps must be scored, written, produced and choreographed, which requires literacy, math, teamwork and so on. There’s no end to the academics hidden inside all of this after-school fun.

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And a growing body of research shows that kids who participate in high-quality after-school programming achieve better outcomes in a number of arenas.

Which makes obvious the question: How can we provide more Twin Cities kids this kind of opportunity?

Travel back a couple of years to 2010, when the board of directors at the McKnight Foundation began exploring the idea of creating a spin-off to give its youth out-of-school time grant-making a home, so to speak. In March of 2011, Youthprise was born. A few months later, Youth Community Connections, Minnesota’s 10-year-old after-school alliance, formally became a part of the organization.

The Minneapolis Foundation, the St. Paul Foundation, the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children, McKnight and a host of other philanthropic leaders came to the table with funding and advice.

Karen Kingsley
Karen Kingsley

In May, Youthprise announced its first round of grants, $2.1 million for local programs, including $30,000 for Beacons. According to Karen Kingsley, its director of public policy and communications, it will soon announce another grant for Beacons, this one to further an effort to make it a kind of go-to network for anyone — kids, families, educators — looking for help finding out-of-school opportunities.

The money will buy a few purple Taki prop bags, but that’s only a small part of Youthprise’s mission. The broader idea is to make sure that after-school enrichment comes to be seen by policymakers, educators and taxpayers not as babysitting for middle and high school students, but as a critical part of an education.

Kids have 24 hours of time out of school each week, plus vacations, holidays and other breaks. Middle- and upper-class families take advantage of this time for music lessons, sports, travel and trips to museums and other cultural sites. Kids whose families can’t afford these experiences just fall further behind.

“Making sure our youth have great learning opportunities during the more than 2,000 hours they have outside of school each year is a top priority,” explained President Wokie Weah. “We view the achievement gap as a result of an opportunity gap, and we’re working to fill that gap.”

In an era where accountability is king, creating and funding an infrastructure means identifying the elements, such as engagement or attachment to a caring adult, that make after-school programming effective and proving that that quality plays into students’ success. To do this, Youthprise and its partners believe, after-school providers need to develop effective ways of collecting and analyzing data on academic and other outcomes for participating youth.

“We want this to be part of the policy debate,” said Kingsley. “How it contributes both in the classroom and in youth being engaged in learning and in having good outcomes in life.”

Educators and policymakers have understood for some time that the more time a student spends engaged in learning, the more likely they are to excel. As a result, much attention has focused on increasing the number and length of school days. After-school programming, however, has been in danger of slipping off the agenda.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty de-allocated state funding in 2003. Recognizing the importance of longer days, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) contained some $1 billion in out-of-school-time funding; Minnesota received $9 million of it. NCLB should have been replaced or renewed two years ago, but Congress has gridlocked.

And so out-of-school-time proponents are engaged in an effort that’s similar to the one advocates of early childhood education began when their funding stream dried up. Spurred by research by economist Art Rolnick, co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota, that showed every tax dollar invested in preschoolers returned $16 to the economy, early-ed advocates built a system for rating quality programs and proving their effectiveness. The resulting data generated bipartisan momentum.

Starting with his 2006 election, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has been engaged in an effort to eliminate barriers to participation in quality after-school programming ranging from transportation to free professional development for youth workers. A painstaking effort there brought together the park system, the school district, community organizations and activists, local nonprofits, business and civic leaders, parents, youth and police and libraries.

In March 2011, the Sprockets network was born, putting families in touch with programs, exposing funders to data on outcomes and youth workers with resources for driving quality. The group has an agreement to work with the Wilder Foundation to share data.

Similarly, Youthprise aims to create a formal, philanthropic home for out-of-school programming. “The field is at a place where we are trying to organize it,” said Kingsley. “What funding counts? How do we define quality?”

One advantage that the creation of this kind of “intermediary” organization presents is the ability to work with programs that aren’t big enough to compete for grants from Youthprise parent McKnight. Among the 101 initial grantees are emerging groups such the American Oromo Community of Minnesota, Juxtaposition, Peta Wakan Tipi and Tamales y Bicicletas.

Right now, Youthprise is working on another grant for Beacons, this one to help it become a linchpin for a Minneapolis counterpart to Sprockets.

“We’re in a unique position to fund promising efforts and see how they work and then support the best systems at a citywide level,” said Kingsley. “And also, to create more champions at the local and state level.”