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Scott Hazelrigg parked his Jeep in a North Omaha driveway, pulled out three camp chairs and a box of Krispy Kremes and set up in the front yard of a 15-year-old boy he hadn’t seen in a while.

“Mr. William!” the 51-year-old announced jovially as William Sherrod, roused by his mother earlier than usual on this Wednesday morning, took a seat and reached for a doughnut. It was about 8:30 a.m.

“What have you been doing since school’s been out?” Hazelrigg asked.

Under normal circumstances, William would be sitting in class at North High during the day and then spending his after-school hours at NorthStar, a unique enrichment center for boys that Hazelrigg runs near 50th Street and Ames Avenue. He would be playing lacrosse for NorthStar and getting plugged into the college prep and tutoring that NorthStar offers along with meals, games, a high ropes course and an indoor climbing wall. He’d have a chance at other opportunities like a summer Outward Bound overnight camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

But with the pandemic keeping youths like William at home, places like NorthStar have gotten creative. NorthStar, for instance, is serving some 200 boxed dinners on Monday nights. Families go through a socially distanced assembly line to pick up food to take home. NorthStar also provides food pantry boxes on Wednesdays and breakfast and lunch on Fridays. Soon, Hazelrigg is going to distribute Clorox wipes, toilet paper and other nonfood essentials.

He’s also making home visits, popping into the front yards of youths NorthStar serves with camp chairs and doughnuts. He calls it a “touch point,” a way to stay connected at a time of terrible disconnect. Not only is social isolation hard, it also can be dangerous to children and youths who may lack supervision, structure and safety in their homes or neighborhoods. Hazelrigg is especially worried about this summer.

“If it’s really hot, there are no jobs and people haven’t had structure,” he said, “bad stuff happens.”

Hazelrigg pulled out a flyer for NorthStar’s summer school, an e-learning program in conjunction with Metropolitan Community College. It’s designed to help high school students make up the academic time lost during this coronavirus school closures. The flyer cites “the COVID-19 slide,” which predicts that low-income students will be hit hard by the school disruption, losing 30% of the school year’s reading gains and half of any math gains.

That would increase the organization’s challenge in getting boys from the high-poverty North Omaha ZIP codes 68104 and 68111 to graduate from high school on time. Citing longitudinal studies of Nebraska high school dropouts, just half of all boys from North Omaha who enter ninth grade will finish 12th grade on time. Summer learning loss is a factor already, and Hazelrigg worries about a deeper slide given the closure of Omaha schools in early March.

NorthStar President Scott Hazelrigg describes expansion work at the youth enrichment center near 50th Street and Ames Avenue. A restored, vintage Piper Cub aircraft hangs from the ceiling as an inspirational symbol.

To mitigate academic losses that compound over time, the nonprofit starts with high-risk third graders and designs programming to boost reading levels. Only 12% of Nebraska’s low-income black male student population is reading proficiently by fourth grade. Better reading acumen translates into better academic success and positions boys to attain more in the future. Not completing high school is associated with poor lifetime outcomes including unemployment and incarceration.

NorthStar offers tutoring, college and ACT prep, serving an average of 180 boys in third through 12th grades every day with after-school and weekend programs.

A new $20 million building addition, currently under construction, will double capacity. The eventual goal is to serve 850 boys, counting summer programs. The new spaces, which are scheduled for completion this fall and next spring, include:

  • A dedicated high school wing with two classrooms, six study rooms and program offices, designed to give better separation between age levels; and an elementary and middle school wing with an expanded parent waiting area and mindfulness classroom.
  • A new dining hall featuring a restored vintage Piper Cub aircraft, hanging from the ceiling. Its purpose is to inspire. When boys return to NorthStar, Hazelrigg plans to teach them about America’s first licensed black male pilot, James Herman Banning.
  • An “innovation hub” to support STEM activities; a patio and garden plaza; a “store” with gently used and new clothing; and showers.

William, now in his fifth year at NorthStar, might have gotten to watch all this work unfold. But stuck at home like everyone else, he’ll have to wait until it’s safe to see the progress.

William is the only child in a tidy gray home near 44th Avenue and Fort Street. He lives with his mother, Rhonda Scott, his grandfather and uncle. In week eight of quarantine life, online school has gotten old. His teachers have told him that his third-quarter grades hold for the rest of the year, removing any incentive to do much book work these last few weeks.

Hazelrigg nods. He hasn’t come to scold. What’s been hard, William?

William works on a chocolate cake doughnut and considers the question. He actually misses school, he said. He definitely misses lacrosse, and shows Hazelrigg the T-shirt under his hoodie. It says NorthStar Lacrosse. He misses his dad, who lives in Iowa. His PlayStation 4 is broken, and William feels a little stir-crazy.

“I’m running out of things to do,” he said.

William’s mother came out and sat on the porch. She chimed in that quarantine is hard on parents, too. She misses watching William on the lacrosse field.

And she misses NorthStar, which was a lifesaver when William was in fifth grade. At the time, she said, his elementary school announced that sixth grade was moving to junior high instead of staying in the building with the younger children. She got William enrolled in NorthStar to give him a safe place after school and experience being with older kids. He has stuck with it since.

Hazelrigg makes a plug for summer learning. NorthStar is going to hand out 100 iPads for boys who enroll in that online summer school NorthStar is doing with Metro.

“Take a class,” he urges William. “Think about it. Keep your brain going. When you go back to school in August, you’ll have thought about something other than doughnuts and PlayStation 4.”

William doesn’t just like video games. He’s into puzzles, board games and Legos. He ran into the house to fetch proof — an intricate Lego school bus he built with hundreds of pieces, including passengers who slide out.

William likes to build things. NorthStar likes to build Williams. No pandemic is going to get in the way of that.

By Erin Grace, World-Herald staff writer // May 7, 2020

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