How an After-School Program Fought Crime - Pacific Standard

How an After-School Program Fought Crime

A police force and an after-school program in Costa Mesa, California, worked together to make a neighborhood safer and send kids to college. What can we learn from their success?
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(Photo: lnx/Flickr)

(Photo: lnx/Flickr)

Every kid on Shalimar Street knew the rules. Hop off the school bus and head straight to your family’s apartment. Avoid the sedan, the one parked on the corner of Pomona Avenue, where Latino gang members dealt heroin and coke at all times of the day and night. Don’t play outside; the Vario Little Town Gang might roll through at any time. There was no neighborhood park to play in anyway, so why risk getting caught in a drive-by shooting?

Then, in 1993, one drive-by upended the rules on these two short suburban blocks, the site of a decades-old, drug-fueled turf battle between the Shalimar Street Gang and the rival Vario Little Town Gang in Costa Mesa, a town 40 miles south of Los Angeles.

They’d had enough of their children spending the night in the bathtub, the safest place to sleep when gunfire erupted.

The mothers in this dense immigrant neighborhood got fed up. They’d had enough of their children spending the night in the bathtub, the safest place to sleep when gunfire erupted. They formed a neighborhood task force and enlisted the help of a local church. Church leaders agreed to rent a three-bedroom apartment here and turn it into a free after-school program. Volunteers painted the rooms in cheery colors and knocked out closets to make more room for desks. They stocked the rooms with computers, books, and college prep materials. Neighborhood teens helped pick out the hand-me-down furniture. Soon, the program, which emphasized academics, spread to two more apartments.

The hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. are the prime time for unsupervised youth to experiment with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and sex. Study after study shows that afters-school programs boost test scores, school attendance, and graduation rates. But they also cut down on juvenile crime.

A 2007 study of the after-school program LA’s BEST, in Los Angeles, showed that every program dollar spent prevented $2.50 in juvenile crime. When an after-school program opened in Highland Park, Michigan, crime dropped 40 percent in the surrounding neighborhood, according to a United States Department of Education report.

If we agree as a country that juvenile crime is bad and education is good, then the lessons of Shalimar Street show us that achieving these twin values can’t be seen as some Sisyphean task. It’s fair to say that what happened on these two blocks could happen elsewhere.

Change, however, didn’t occur overnight.

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In the months after the Shalimar Learning Center opened, Costa Mesa police stepped up neighborhood patrols and a number of other community-policing tactics. Code enforcement officers cracked down on the mostly absentee landlords who operated the more than 60 run-down, multi-story apartment buildings up and down the street. The city banned on-street parking to deter dealers and cut down on thefts and other crimes. At the urging of church leaders, residents formed a tenants association to pressure landlords to kick out drug dealers and maintain the buildings. In time, the city demolished a gang-infested apartment building on Shalimar Street to make way for a neighborhood park.

A 2007 study of the after-school program LA’s BEST, in Los Angeles, showed that every program dollar spent prevented $2.50 in juvenile crime.

“All of this was sending the message to slumlords to pay attention, because we’re paying attention,” says Dave Brooks, a Costa Mesa police captain at the time.

The message took time to sink in. The first Christmas party at the Shalimar Learning Center was cut short by gunfire, although no one was hurt. Afterwards, police ordered both ends of the street permanently closed to forestall future shootings. Studies show that dead-end, cul-de-sac, and L-type blocks are less crime prone than through streets. “It was using all of the assets of the community to fix problems in the community,” Brooks says.

Police also issued parole violations every time known gang members were seen together—violations that put convicted criminals behind bars to serve out their full sentences. Still, gang members scoffed. That was until Too Tall, a big-time neighborhood gang leader, was "violated," as it's known in police parlance, for walloping his cheating girlfriend days after his release from prison. Too Tall's lock-up set gang members buzzing: "Too Tall had to go back to state prison for beating up his old lady," Brooks says of the gang members' sentiments at the time. "That turned the tide."

An aerial view of Costa Mesa, California, in March 2011. (Photo: D Ramey Logan/Wikimedia Commons)

An aerial view of Costa Mesa, California, in March 2011. (Photo: D Ramey Logan/Wikimedia Commons)

In Newport Beach, a neighboring town, Randy Barth was a leader at the church that gave the after-school program the money to get off the ground. Barth says ongoing media attention also forced city leaders and the police to clean up a neighborhood they’d largely ignored. Two years after Shalimar Learning Center opened, Barth replicated the model in an apartment complex in another tough neighborhood in an adjoining city, Santa Ana.

Barth, a former stockbroker, today heads the non-profit THINK Together, which runs Shalimar Learning Center and more than 400 after-school programs serving upwards of 120,000 students. What started in one impoverished neighborhood has spread to hundreds of low-income schools. Barth chronicled the rise of these after-school programs in THINK Together, a 2015 book he co-authored with Jennifer Delson.

After-school programs that succeed, Barth explains, are backed by a shared civic vision—typically that of a school board or mayor—and money. “Money is the big stumbling block in most places,” Barth says. “California has more funding for this kind of thing than all the other states put together.” THINK Together, he says, scrimps together funding from corporations, foundations, and individuals, plus the $7.50 per child per day it receives from a state grant for low-income schools. To run a high-quality after-school program, an average of $24 to $33 per child per day is required, according to a Wallace Foundation report.

Nationwide, federal and state grants account for only 14 percent of after-school program funding, according to a 2009 report by the Afterschool Alliance—a non-profit organization that advocates for affordable, quality after-school programs—and the Harvard School of Public Health. Nearly 60 percent of low-income parents cited affordability as a reason their child wasn’t enrolled in an after-school program, the most recent report by Afterschool Alliance found. African-American and Hispanic parents, more than Caucasian parents, also said the absence of a safe way to get to and from after-school programs was a barrier to enrolling their children.

“Money is the big stumbling block in most places,” Barth says. “California has more funding for this kind of thing than all the other states put together.”

“Our country is nowhere close to meeting the demand for after school,” Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, told the New York Times late last year.

In January, a Senate committee considered scrapping long-standing federal after-school funding in favor of block grants that wouldn't be earmarked for after-school programs. More than 200 national, state, and local groups have come out against this. In a statement, the Afterschool Alliance said it's concerned that money for more than 1.6 million students in after-school programs will disappear.

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Twenty years have passed since the Shalimar Learning Center opened. Crime remains low on Shalimar Street, although police don’t track statistics by neighborhood. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better now,” says Joe Erickson, a Costa Mesa city councilman and mayor between 1991 and 2000, the period when Shalimar Learning Center got off the ground. “The neighborhood is much safer and the kids have a shot at a real future and Shalimar [Learning Center] has been a big part of that.”

In a neighborhood where only one in five high school graduates go to college, every single teen who has attended the Shalimar Learning Center year-round in the last six years has gone onto college, according to the organization’s 2014 annual report. One Shalimar teen will head to Harvard University this fall.

The transformation isn’t quite complete. Barth says his organization owns a four-plex at the end of Shalimar Street where, one day, he’d like to see a community center rise.

Still, the old neighborhood admonitions no longer apply. Kids aren’t afraid to play outside after school. Most days, they can be seen whizzing up and down Shalimar Street on skateboards and bikes.

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