BOSTON CENTERS for Youth and Families, the department that runs the city’s 46 community centers, has spent the past few years analyzing and overhauling its operations in an attempt to better serve Boston’s youngest residents. Earlier this month, as a result of that ongoing process, the department pulled city workers out of some of its community centers to enhance the quality of services at nearby facilities. The department is hoping it can serve some neighborhoods better by consolidating resources instead of leaving them thinly spread out over too many centers.
The move has caused an uproar. Critics say it will hurt families’ access to the centers and, worse yet, that it proves incompetence or indifference on the part of the city. On the contrary, the city has taken carefully calculated steps in economically harsh times to enhance the services it already provides.
The city considered a broad range of factors before making the changes. First, it aimed to pull staff out of facilities in walking distance to other centers. Young people who are used to dropping into the Walsh Community Center in South Boston, for example, still have access to three other facilities nearby. Second, the department pulled workers out of centers that are double staffed by city employees as well as those from privately funded organizations. When Boston’s system of community centers first emerged, facilities were mostly staffed by government workers. These days, several nonprofits exist to enhance young people’s access to extracurricular programs. It’s telling that even after the staffing shifts, there has been little change to the programs or access at most of the facilities.
That doesn’t mean the city has acted flawlessly. Residents were upset by the changes partly because they didn’t understand them. That’s the city’s fault. While the Centers for Youth and Families held three community feedback meetings, there were no easy ways for those who didn’t attend the meetings to learn what’s really going on. Why couldn’t the department post notes explaining the changes at each of the facilities? Or, better yet, provide a clear, easily-findable explanation on its website?
Meanwhile, the city should reconsider its strategy in one neighborhood, the Four Corners area of Dorchester. The department has pulled staff out of the Marshall Community Center to enhance its efforts at the better equipped Cleveland Community Center about a half-mile away. While that strategy might make sense in most parts of the city, this area has seen some of the worst incidents of youth violence. Providing extracurricular alternatives to young people in this neighborhood should be a top priority, and representatives of the community are ready to meet with the city to hammer out a way to improve utilization of the center. The city should take advantage of this home-grown effort. If a strong partnership emerges, some of Boston’s most at-risk residents stand to benefit.