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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Stakeholders discuss the needs of Annandale youths

About 15 Annandale stakeholders—leaders in education, business, community groups, law enforcement, and religious institutions—spent a couple of hours last week talking about how to get young people more civically engaged.

It was the first meeting of the Annandale Community Planning Group (CPG), an outgrowth of the “dialogues on diversity,” a series of community outreach meetings held at Annandale High School in 2011 and 2012. Participants at those sessions identified youth engagement as one of the key needs of the community. The Annandale Roundtable, a group of stakeholders formed to continue those discussions, proposed forming the CPG to develop a youth initiative.

The CPG participants began the discussions by sharing their impressions about local youths. At subsequent meetings, the group will explore various types of community engagement models, look at what’s already going on in the community, and develop an action plan, said Norma Lopez of the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services (NCS), who is facilitating the CPG.

Vincent Randazzo, the principal of Annandale High School, said his goal is to strengthen the ties between the school and the entire community. More than half the students at AHS come from families who live in poverty, he said. Many of them have at least one parent who is working two jobs, so kids spend a lot of time on their own. 

Randazzo said he wants to provide more after-school intervention and enrichment activities with the ultimate goal of raising academic achievement. He is developing a program to provide extra help to seniors struggling academically to ensure that they will be able to graduate with their peers.

One issue the group wants to explore further is whether to create a physical space for youths. Hossain Gohl, of the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Seven Corners, suggested young people need a place to gather outside of school. “We need to make sure youths feel like they’re part of society,” he said, and that’s especially important for people who came here as refugees, rather than by choice.

AHS student Moises Ruiz-Valasquez, who is co-chairing the CPG, said having a place outside of school is better because it provides a chance to connect with people from other schools. One of the best things about AHS, he said, is its diversity—there is no dominant group—and people respect one another. “There are a lot of people here who actually care about youths and their future,” he said.

Nancy Hall, a former president of Annandale Christian Community for Action, said a lot of kids are overscheduled and don’t have any extra time. The ones who take part in a lot of extracurricular activities sometimes stay after school until 10 p.m., she said, while “the ones we most want to stay are out of there at the end of the school day.”

Randazzo said that AHS has had a lot of success in combating a gang problem in the past by creating a drama club for students with limited English proficiency. Students in the Theater Without Borders put on plays for the Annandale community while they master language arts skills. Thanks to this program, Randazzo said, students who otherwise might have gotten involved in negative behavior are now graduating from high school and going to college.

“You’ve got to find some way to build relationships,” he said. “That is the number one thing you can do to help students succeed.” Frank Blechman, a consultant formerly with the Institute of Conflict Analysis at George Mason University, suggested getting young adults—people in their 20s—involved so they can reach out to youths.

The CPG doesn’t need to start from scratch. It can build on programs already operating, Lopez said. At the group’s next meeting, in February, participants will begin to review data on the demographics of Annandale youths and existing resources and programs.

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