A vehicle for learning in St. Paul

Wouldn’t it be great if a city could utilize its resources to close the achievement gap between white and minority students AND develop a saner transportation system?

Impossible? Um, yes, if a single nonprofit, school district or city government is expected to do the work.

But in St. Paul, Minn., those outcomes are a real possibility based on the work of an innovative, multi-organization task force.


This map shows existing circulator bus routes, Metro Transit bus routes, the proposed Central Corridor LRT line, and locations of libraries, rec centers and schools. Click on the image to enlarge.

Last spring, Nan Skelton of the Neighborhood Learning Community (NLC) and Vallay Varro, education director for the St. Paul mayor’s office, invited representatives from a variety of stakeholder groups to form the St. Paul City-wide Circulator Task Force. Skelton, who is also co-director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, has been a driving force behind the NLC’s vision of neighborhood organizations, local government, and residents working together as civic partners to ensure that all children grow up as successful engaged citizens.

“Circulators" are an innovative tool to meet the goals of involving a variety of people in improving the learning of all children in a neighborhood.

These free buses are already traveling established routes through the West Side and East Side neighborhoods of St. Paul, connecting children and youth to other people and to after school and summer learning opportunities such as camps and tutoring programs. “We know that young people want to learn and get involved," says Kari Denissen, coordinator of the city’s Second Shift Initiative. “We also know that there are lots of resources at the neighborhood level—including knowledgeable, caring adults who can offer informal learning opportunities—but those resources need to be identified and children and teens need to be able to get to them."

Convening a group that has power to make real change

The circulator task force includes representatives from the school district, the mayor’s office and the city’s Dept. of Planning and Economic Development, the city council, Metro Transit, Ramsey County, the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, philanthropic foundations, plus a county commissioner, a state legislator, and residents of the East and West side neighborhoods. “Because the NLC has worked hard to build and maintain civic relationships, we were able to bring to the table people who have the power to make real change in the city," says Skelton.

Setting an agenda

The task force quickly decided on three areas of work: expanding the circulator model to new neighborhoods in St. Paul; making connections among circulator routes, Metro Transit bus lines, and a planned light rail line (the Central Corridor); and creating an interface between circulators and school bus routes to avoid redundancy and conserve resources.

“There is strong interest among the task force members to look at what is spent on getting kids to school," says Roy Magnuson, a Second Shift Commissioner and teacher at Como Senior High School. “In St. Paul, we are serving 40,000 students at a cost of $26 million. This year, $2 million will come out of the district’s general fund because of rising fuel costs. We need to find a better way."

The East and West side circulators are currently supported by grants (there is no charge to riders), so the task force will be looking at funding and sustainability. They’ll also develop a plan for working with neighborhoods, including churches and district councils, to ensure that there’s a foundation for new circulators to be successful.

Involving young people in future policy decisions

“We also need a way to bring young people into these discussions," says Derek Johnson, another member of the NLC and director of West Side Initiatives for the Center for Democracy and Citizenship. “Young people bring energy and ideas, and yet they are rarely involved in policy discussions—even when it affects them directly. That’s part of what our work is about, creating opportunities for young people to develop as engaged citizens."

For more information about the circulator, read this February 2008 post

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs