Alexandria is being scrutinized like never before--through the eyes of children.
Starting this week and ending Aug. 13, teams of teenagers armed with clipboards and survey forms are fanning out across the city, conducting a block-by-block inventory of resources for youths in both the public and private sectors.
Not only will they be compiling detailed information about what their town has to offer young people--from birth through age 21--but they also will be rating businesses, churches, nonprofit organizations, schools and city agencies on their "youth friendliness."
"It'll be interesting to see what their view is about what's out there," said Suzanne S. Kratzok, who is coordinating the project. "The important thing is that kids learn about these things and discover them for themselves."
Alexandria is one of about 30 jurisdictions nationwide to participate in the "Community YouthMapping" project. These "mappers," as they're called, will use the information they collect to create a first-of-its-kind database on youth services.
More than just a directory, the database will include such information as whether jobs, programs or internships are available for young people, how accessible they are to the disabled and the languages spoken in the workplace. Mappers will be on the lookout for affordable places to grab a bite to eat or a place to play basketball or join a dance group.
After conducting standardized interviews at each address, the mappers will assess the youth friendliness and assign one of five ratings--awesome, real good, okay, needs help or poor. After it is all entered into a computer by the mappers, the database will be accessible to youths, their families, service providers and policymakers.
"It's a wonderful opportunity not only for the city to assess how it views itself in terms of being a youth-friendly facility," said Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D), who is chairman of the city's Youth Policy Commission, which has endorsed the project. "It's also an opportunity for us to view our city through our young people."
The program, a public-private partnership, is being funded through both city funds and donations from businesses and foundations, including the Robert S. Rixse Foundation, which is the chief private sponsor.
The 29 mappers, who range in age from 14 to 19, were selected to represent a cross section of the city's youth, Kratzok said. They will be paid minimum wage, $5.15 an hour, for six 30-hour weeks, she said.
"It's a summer job, but more than that, it's community service," Kratzok said.
The mappers recently underwent a two-day training seminar at T.C. Williams High School to learn skills in interviewing, computer data management and conflict resolution. They also received tips in how to talk to people they don't know and adults who aren't used to dealing with children. They practiced making their introductions on the school stage.
"Your professionalism is going to determine if you make or break the interview," Raul Ratcliffe, a program officer with the Center for Youth Development & Policy Research, told the group.
The YouthMappers program also has been implemented in parts of the District, Richmond and Baltimore, he said.
Steven Watkins, 14, who will be in eighth grade at George Washington Middle School in the fall, said his mother has been coaching him in how to deal with the public. "She says if you're nice to them and have good eye contact, then people should give you the same attention," he said.
"This is new to me," said Joanne Walker, 16, who will be a senior this fall at T.C. Williams. "I guess I have to get comfortable talking to strangers. I'm excited and nervous."
With safety being the paramount concern, the teenagers were taught how to recognize and avoid sexual harassment on the job and other dangers, Kratzok said. They will always work in pairs and be supervised in the field by college interns, she said.
As she surveys her city, Sylvia Glassco, 15, who will be a junior at T.C. Williams in the fall, will be on the lookout for a group of people who share her interests. Glassco, who plays the flute and sings, would like to find a church or a small musical group to join.
"I wanted to do something meaningful, not just scooping ice cream," Glassco said. "My main focus is going to be getting to know the city."
As they begin their ambitious assignment looking for "faces, spaces and places" this week, they will be wearing YouthMapper T-shirts and comfortable walking shoes. After conducting each survey, they will leave behind a sign saying "We're on the Map!"
Donley said he hopes the YouthMappers, and what they are trying to accomplish, will be welcomed by the city.
"We've tried to promote it and talk about it as much as possible," Donley said. "I hope our businesses and our citizens are going to be receptive to the young people when they show up."
CAPTION: Students from the "Community YouthMapping" project do exercises to establish trust. Trashawn Randolph, 14, takes a leap and the group locks arms and catches her before she falls. The group is conducting a block-by-block inventory of Alexandria's public and private resources for youths.
CAPTION: Raul Ratcliffe, a consultant from the Center for Youth Development, explains the mapping project to T.C. Williams High School students.
CAPTION: Students practice introducing themselves so they are prepared when they go out to conduct the survey.