Biloxi: Beyond The Classroom

Kaitlin Plat

Biloxi: Beyond The Classroom

By Kaitlin Plat

What is the best way to address students' needs after school? Educators, parents and students in Biloxi, Mississippi, all got a turn to list their ideas in a Community Conversation facilitated by Public Agenda's public engagement team.

The devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita took an important but often overlooked toll on youth along the Gulf Coast. In addition to destroying homes, schools, and other infrastructure, the storms washed away many playgrounds, recreation centers and parks, leaving children and teenagers with nowhere to go in their out-of-school time.

The situation for youth in the state of Mississippi is particularly dire; according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count rankings, Mississippi has consistently ranked 50th in the nation each year on measures of child and adolescent well-being.

There are also indications that Mississippi children displaced by the disaster are showing signs of depression, anxiety, and general emotional and behavioral problems. In order to provide some relief to struggling children and families, communities across the region are looking for ways to provide kids with opportunities for safe, fun, and enriching activities outside of school.

Last year, in partnership with the City of Biloxi, The Mississippi Gulf Coast Youth Development Coalition, the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Gulf Coast, the National League of Cities and the National Education Association, Public Agenda helped the community of Biloxi to engage in a Community Conversation about what they expected and needed from after-school programming.

The various organizations who took part in sponsoring and organizing the conversation were especially interested in hearing from local parents, guardians, and the young people themselves to share ideas and perspectives about how to improve after-school programming and brainstorm how the school district, service providers, and the community can work together on these goals. In addition, it was hoped that the Conversation would lead to the incorporation of the opinions and ideas of the community and local youth into the design of new and existing programs and services.

Over sixty participants, including civic and business community leaders, discussed available after-school activities and preferences for new programs.

The Community Conversation took place at Gorenflo Elementary School in Biloxi on December 4, 2008. Over 60 participants representing youth, parents, grandparents, citizens, youth workers, school representatives, and civic and business community members, met to talk about available after-school activities and preferences for new programs, sharing their opinions in an open discussion.

Participants used a Public Agenda-designed Choicework Discussion Starter to help them kick-start their dialogue by looking at three different approaches to structuring an after-school program. The first option was focused on keeping children off the street and on the right path, highlighting issues of safety and avoiding risky behavior.

The second option was centered around giving children better learning opportunities, with tutoring and homework help as main components of the after-school activities. The last option concerned broadening children's horizons by exposing them to new cultural experiences, with the arts and cultural diversity and inclusiveness as integral parts.

Participants, led by trained moderators and recorders from the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast, discussed all three options, decided which was closest to their own thinking, and identified areas of common ground as well as those in which there is disagreement.

Priorities identified by Community Conversation participants included keeping children off the street and on the right path: staying safe and avoiding risky behavior.

Almost all involved agreed that youth needed to play a larger role in planning and designing after-school programs, so that the programs continue to be appealing to teenagers as well as younger children.

It was also felt that organizations which provide youth services, like churches, schools, and museums, need to communicate more effectively with each other, and parents need to be more involved. Finally, participants identified a growing need for specialized services to be offered for children with special needs.

By all accounts, the Community Conversation was a success, and an evaluation survey found that three-quarters of participants felt that the conversation was very beneficial and provided an important motivation to move forward on addressing the needs identified.

At a first step, the results from the Community Conversation were published and disseminated in a report back to the community put together by the Mississippi Gulf Coast Youth Development Coalition.

The next step is to create a task force to take action on the needs identified by participants, and to continue to involve interested community members and organizations like the United Way of South Mississippi. Finally, the sponsoring organizations plan to take more long-term steps, such as mapping community assets, driving changes in public policy, and holding more Community Conversations in other cities along the Gulf Coast.

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