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Cecilia Rodriguez used to turn bright red every time she had to talk to someone.

Then the 15-year-old started working after school at Urban Roots, a St. Paul nonprofit that gives young people the opportunity to work in urban gardens, learn how to cook and work on conservation projects in the city. Her confidence grew. Her shyness dissipated.

“Now I can talk to anybody,” she said.

Cecilia is one of the lucky ones. While St. Paul has spent years working to expand after-school programs, it still cannot meet the demand — especially of low-income students and students of color, many of whom leave school in the afternoon and have nowhere to go.

White students, especially those with higher incomes, are more likely to be aware of after-school programs and are more likely to benefit from those they attend, according to 2016 Minnesota Student Survey data compiled by Sprockets, a public-private partnership launched under former Mayor Chris Coleman.

“In St. Paul, there are many racial disparities that affect our community, including disparities around education,” Sprockets Director Erik Skold told City Council members earlier this month. “And gaps in after-school access only exacerbate these disparities.”

St. Paul isn’t alone. Unequal access to after-school programs is “a huge equity issue,” said Jodi Grant, executive director at the Washington, D.C.-based Afterschool Alliance.

“We have 10.2 million kids in after-school,” she said. “We’ve got another 20 million whose parents want them in after school but they can’t afford it or it’s not available in their community.”

According to the Minnesota Student Survey, which includes responses from students in grades 5, 8, 9 and 11, 70 percent of higher-income white youth said they participate in after-school activities at least three times a week, compared to 61 percent of youth of color at the same income level.

They’re also more likely to report that when they do attend after-school programs, they feel safe, learn skills and develop trusting relationships with peers and adults.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, teenagers hung out in a basement room at Arlington Hills Community Center, a combined library and rec center on St. Paul’s East Side. They played cards and video games, worked on art projects and chatted with each other and with staff members.

Daniel Ezedi, 18, said he’s there every day after school, often staying until the center closes. He likes the people he’s met, and he likes that there are rules for treating each other respectfully.

“I feel this place is safe,” he said.

And if this place wasn’t there?

“I’d just be home.”

The Minnesota Student Survey results concerned City Council members at a Library Board meeting April 4. The St. Paul Public Library system oversees Sprockets, and City Council members make up the Library Board.

“It’s obviously difficult information for us to receive,” said Council Member Jane Prince, who chairs the Library Board. “But it’s critical that we now know this so that we can focus our attention on it and address it.”

With funding declining and programs filled to capacity, the St. Paul libraries, the Parks and Recreation Department and Sprockets are all looking for ways to reach more children.

A lack of transportation, cultural and language barriers, program locations and cost are all roadblocks.

Meanwhile, the largest funding source for after-school programming statewide is the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, which President Donald Trump last year proposed cutting completely.

The grant remained in the federal budget that passed in March, and St. Paul programs received about $1.5 million of a request that was more than $3.6 million, according to the Minnesota Department of Education, which awards the federal grant dollars. Of 13 organizations that applied for the grant, three received funding. The unfunded organizations would have served 1,778 students at 10 locations, according to the department.

The Trump administration released its budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 in February. It does not include money for after-school programming.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509