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Trenton’s Youth Advocacy Cabinet, SCOOP Program Combat Youth Gangs, Truancy

August 8, 2005

Trenton (NJ) Mayor Douglas H. Palmer held citywide and ward-by-ward Youth Summits in 2001 to identify the needs of youth and their families in his city. Recognizing that integrated, inter-agency solutions were required to maximize limited resources, the mayor formed the Youth Advocacy Cabinet in October 2002 to set broad policies and implement programs to solve youth-related problems.

With the authority of the mayor’s office and the dedicated involvement of top-level decision-makers across every sector of the community, the Mayor’s Youth Advocacy Cabinet has maintained its initial focus on improving the access and equity of youth enrichment programs. Recently, however, the Cabinet has taken on the additional critical task of improving youth violence and gang prevention, intervention and enforcement services.

The Mayor’s Youth Advocacy Cabinet overcame the disconnects across youth service providers by placing the weight of the mayor’s office squarely at the helm and then convening high-level leaders from the city council, Board of Education, Mercer Community College, The United Way, the city departments of Health and Human Services, Recreation, Natural Resources, and Culture, the Trenton Police Department and the Trenton Housing Authority.

This collaborative partnership utilizes numerous resources to turn policy ideas into working programs. For example, when the Cabinet faced the need to improve youth access to enrichment programs, the challenge was to provide safe and affordable transportation. Clearly, the paramount parental concern was safety of their children. Drawing upon the expertise of social service providers, police intelligence, school district resources, and the knowledge of technology specialists, the Advocacy Cabinet created the City'safe Transportation System – a free bus system to transport youth to programs at as many as 13 locations. To ensure safety, the operations council and city staff developed a computer-based system, providing each child with a bar-coded ID that enables youth center directors to log information about the interests, needs and location of each participant.

The Youth Advocacy Cabinet has used federal, state and local funds for its signature project, the SCOOP Program, which is the citywide set of enrichment programs for holistic youth development. The current annual budget for SCOOP, including all enrichment programs and the free bus system, is $1.665 million, $750,000 of which comes from the State Safe Corridors Program, $340,000 from the city’s operating budget, and $325,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant program funds.

The SCOOP Program has opened up Trenton – and a striking array of enrichment opportunities – to young people. Youth who had previously never ventured beyond their neighborhoods are now registered in SCOOP for leadership, mentoring, music, dance and many other enrichment and recreational activities that are available weekday evenings and on Saturdays via a free bus system. More than 3,400 youth have registered for programs designed to prevent youth violence or afford opportunities for intervention with youth who may be at-risk for gang activity. The availability of these programs at four city-run community recreation centers, five school sites, and numerous museums and cultural sites has transformed the choices for parents and youth and provided healthy ways for young people to occupy themselves.

The Cabinet also addressed difficult issues of equity in youth programming – finding that only two percent of programs were designed for girls and virtually no programming was tailored to address the needs of children with disabilities.

Accordingly, the Cabinet increased programs designed for girls by 50 percent, and created adaptive recreation and aquatics programs with staff and lifeguards trained to serve youth with visual or hearing impairments, autism, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. The adaptive swimming program is the first of its kind in the region to be available for free.

Palmer and the Youth Advocacy Cabinet/SCOOP Program were awarded the 2005 City Livability Award for cities under 100,000 in population by the Conference of Mayors. The City Livability Awards Program, sponsored by Waste Management, honors mayors for their leadership and creativity in developing programs that improve the quality of life for city residents.

As the Department of Justice review points out, the SCOOP program takes great care to involve all members of the community. Even the prime source of information about program offerings, the SCOOP website, was designed by elementary, middle- and high-school students. The website allows any student or parent to look up available programs and choose their recreational experience – and student focus groups provide ongoing feedback about the web page content, usability and relevance. It is continuously updated by program providers.

Another impact of SCOOP is that it stands for diversity in the best sense. Youth and their parents come to the centers for Latin salsa and African dance programs where the instructors are longtime experts in the cultures they portray.

The Cabinet has also expanded its focus from prevention of youth violence and gang activity to examine intervention needs among young people at-risk for recruitment into – or who have already joined – gangs.

This new emphasis led Palmer to hire a specialist to coordinate programs to combat youth violence and gang activity in December 2004. Also, the mayor has launched the Greater Trenton Safer Cities Initiative to unify and strengthen gang intervention and enforcement efforts in conjunction with the Rutgers University Police Institute.

For more information on Trenton’s Youth Advocacy Cabinet or the SCOOP Program, contact Kent Ashworth at 609/989-3828.