Alan Curtis, president and CEO of the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, thinks St. Petersburg offers his group an opportunity to help at-risk teens become community leaders.
"A life in prison is more costly than an opportunity program," Curtis said.
The Washington-based nonprofit group recently awarded Quantum Opportunities, a St. Petersburg after-school program, $118,000 to offer tutoring, internship opportunities and civic leadership skills to students starting in the ninth grade.
The funding, which will be renewed every year for four years based on good performance, comes from a $10 million grant awarded to Eisenhower by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Quantum's first goal is to get students back on grade level, Curtis said. "There are so many distractions, so many alternatives. Through these initiatives we provide youth with safe havens and programs that will help them work through problems that can lead to teenage pregnancy, crime and poverty."
The focus then turns to helping students develop skills that will take them beyond high school — a good job or college, Curtis said. "If you are going to be successful in this world you're going to have to relate to employers," he said.
Currently, 30 students from St. Petersburg and Gibbs high schools are participating in Quantum, spending time at the Center for Community and Economic Justice on Central Avenue.
Students like 16-year-old Dominique Smith work on computers and get one-on-one help from executive director Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich.
"I have seen remarkable growth in the students we work with," Scruggs-Leftwich said.
Smith, a St. Petersburg Collegiate High School student, said her proudest moment so far has been winning fourth place in a Technology Bowl in Tampa.
Intensive mentoring is one of the program's hallmarks. One of the best predictors of success is having a strong adult mentor, said Emmett Folgert, an Eisenhower Foundation trustee. "(The program) gives both support and challenges."
Quantum Opportunities itself has faced some challenges. The program was originally piloted in 1989 at five cities and held up as a model program for urban youth.
Then in 1995, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Ford Foundation funded programs in seven locations, including Cleveland, Houston, Washington and Philadelphia.
At one point, several evaluations, including one by Mathematica Policy Research, raised questions about its effectiveness. But Curtis said federal efforts to duplicate the program — originally launched by nonprofit dollars — spawned too many rules.
Quantum has since been refocused on what worked, Curtis said. "We went back to basic education," he said.