It’s 3:08 pm and the ringing of a bell liberates some 700 teenagers from the eggshell walls of John O’Connell High School. Like water unleashed through a crack in a levee, a stream of students empties from the modern three-story building on Folsom Street. Past the vice principal monitoring from the sidewalk, past a security guard and a uniformed police officer, in gender-divided clusters of hoodies and jeans, they funnel into the streets, alleys, buses, parks, and homes of the neighborhood and the city.

After a day of regimented scheduling, the students can now do as they please. Busing across town for a minimum wage job, changing into uniform for soccer practice, and smoking weed in the park are all popular options. Which one they chose holds no less gravity than determining the fate of the neighborhood.

That, at least, is what many Mission neighborhood activists and candidates in the race for District 9 supervisor believe. After a spate of late-summer murders in the Mission District, calls for increased after-school programming have echoed through debates and community forums as a solution to the violence.

“It is critical that we provide programs for our young people so that they have something to do,” states supervisor candidate David Campos on his campaign website in addressing public safety.

Candidate Eva Royale calls for an increase in Police Athletic League programs.

Candidate Mark Sanchez wants the schools and recreation centers to keep longer hours.

But talk to students and managers of youth programs, and the proposals are seen as a facile answer to the complex concerns of inner city youth.

Take the case of the teens who leave John O’Connell every afternoon.
With a $200,000 budget to keep students busy after the bell, Gustavo Rodriguez, the coordinator of afterschool programming, manages a rotating schedule of daily activities. On a recent Thursday, a whiteboard in the foyer lists a half dozen offerings, including cooking and construction classes, pep squad, tutoring, and computer labs.

The athletic department offers another range of options. Basketball players mingle inside, awaiting 5’oclock practice, and on the outdoor field, the wrestling team, at the start of their season, pairs up in holds and locking moves. Flyers in the hallway advertise a swim team and capoeira practice on other days of the week.

Relatively few, however, come.

Rodriguez estimates that only 20 percent of O’Connell students are involved in one of his after-school programs. A larger number, he concedes, will never show up, no matter the number or variety of programs. Those, he says, are lost to factors beyond his control.

“Political catch phrases are amusing,” Rodriguez says, referring to the politicians who propose more youth activities as a solution to crime.  “After-school programs aren’t going to feed kids, aren’t going to give them love, aren’t going to give them eight hours of sleep.”

This Thursday at O’Connell, the smell of herbs drifts from one classroom, where the culinary class prepares a feast for a visiting organization. Between whipping up deviled eggs, 16-year old Pheiona Gaynor, in a starched white chef’s jacket, flirts with boys in the doorway. For Gaynor, the biweekly after-school class is groundwork for her career aspiration. “I want to be a chef when I get older,” she says. After school other days of the week, Gaynor goes home to do school work, or stays for academic tutoring.

But Pheiona is in the minority. Rodriguez says most students have too many other obligations and concerns.

“There’s everything from what time the sun goes down, to having to work, to taking care of little brothers and sisters.”

Marilyn Escobar agrees.  Sitting on a fire hydrant on a corner down the block from school, the senior recited a list of ways she could spend her afternoon at O’Connell. “There’s soccer practices, volleyball practices. Some students stay at school at the computer lab or after school activities.” But not her. “I just go to work, or go home and study,” she says, before hopping on the Number 12 bus to go to her Bayshore job, where she works three days a week to save up for college.

Escobar is typical of many students who would rather rack up cash than an extra skill, a sport, or academic help in their spare time, even if it means a long commute to earn minimum wage. That’s what senior Jose Romero looks forward to just about every day—a fast-food job in the Richmond District. The money, he says, is “just for myself.”

Others still are under parents’ orders to get home quick, so that they don’t find themselves in a bad neighborhood after dark.

“Right now I’m going home,” says sophomore ElRey Cayetano striding with purpose away from school. Cayetano’s home is on Treasure Island, and his dad wants him home before late. “It’s the ghetto out here, really. People get stabbed, people get shot. You don’t know what could happen.” That’s one reason Cayetano typically heads straight home, feeds his kitten and cares for his ill uncle, relaxes, and works on school work until his dad comes home. If not, he says, “I gotta call him.”

While grateful for an $80,000 increase in this year’s budget, Rodriguez says that “throwing money at the problem” of what teens do after school can only go so far. Many O’Connell students, nearly half of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch, carry the burden of adult responsibility, and for them, sticking around after school is a luxury they cannot afford. Says 15-year old Cayetano, “basically I’m the man of the house until my dad comes home.”