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New Ferguson teen center

Unidentified youths pose in front of the newly opened Teen Center of Excellence, a new facility for Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, in Ferguson.

Everyone knows it: Youths are susceptible to distractions. That concern applies to kids around the country but, especially in lower income communities, those distractions can quickly turn into dangers — often involving drugs, gangs, guns and violence.

There is no magic, single solution to protect kids. But a significant body of evidence points to the benefits when community centers are more widely accessible, providing a place where teenagers can safely and productively spend their down time. Such centers provide a space where young people can work side-by-side with mentors and receive advice about job and educational opportunities. Or just a recreation space where teens can focus on something other than the dangerous distractions outside.

In early October, Ferguson took a gamble on such a solution by opening the Boys and Girls Teen Center of Excellence, a $12.4 million, 26,856-square-foot facility whose services go far beyond what the average community center offers.

The need for a multi-purpose center full of educational aids and recreational outlets is obvious. This year, only 17.4% of Ferguson-Florissant school district students tested proficient in math. Ferguson’s violent crime rate is nearly double the national average. The new community center doesn’t just provide a safe, supervised space; it has potential to be an all-purpose resource center to spur kids toward success in school and the job market.

Facilities and services include an outdoor and indoor garden, a nutrition-education center, a theater, music studio, art studio, gymnasium, yoga classes, a gaming room and a tutoring space. Students have access to college test-preparation sessions, lessons on robotics and computer coding, and help getting internships and jobs. A 16-to-1 ratio of students to staff members means there’s an ample supply of social workers, trainers and life coaches.

New York University sociologists found that for every new nonprofit community organization in a city of 100,000 people, the homicide rate drops by 1.2%. Even more, youth involved in New York City YMCA leadership programs — similar to the programs at the Ferguson Teen Center — had a high-school graduation rate of 94%, nearly 20 percentage points higher than the citywide rate.

Will the Teen Center solve Ferguson’s problems? Certainly not all, but it can deliver a strong message about constructive alternatives to the kinds of distractions that lead to trouble. Low-income teens don’t struggle because they aren’t smart or hard working. They struggle because of a lack of resources, direction and exposure to successful role models, especially in comparison to their wealthier counterparts.

Maybe a $12.4 million center isn’t the right answer for every community. But Ferguson’s investment seems exactly the kind of model worth considering in parts of north St. Louis, where hope is wearing thin after a summertime of violence and far too many youths were caught in the crossfire.