LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas has received a federal planning grant for a project aimed at helping Kansas City leaders figure out how to connect underserved teens to out-of-school activities and opportunities.
Alexandra Kondyli, associate professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, is leading the team that received the $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. She said out-of-school time (OST) activities such as internships, jobs and other learning or training experiences can help young people shape their identities, as well as prepare for their future academic and professional careers. But in sprawling, low-density metro areas like Kansas City, the physical disconnect between residential areas and OST opportunities — combined with unreliable and inefficient transportation services — creates two fundamentally different experiences: Youths from affluent homes and school districts, who are disproportionately white, have greater access than youths from lower-income homes and schools, who are disproportionately Black and Latino.
“You can see there's a divide, where wealthier kids from high-income households do have that ability to access these opportunities and then eventually have higher success getting accepted to college,” Kondyli said.
Transportation planning can be part of the solution.
“Underrepresented students usually don't know where these opportunities are — and if they know, they don't know how to get there,” she said.
The grant, awarded in January, is part of the first phase of the National Science Foundation’s Civic Innovation Challenge. The agency selected 52 teams across the United States to establish community-based research partnerships that identify local challenges and propose solutions that can potentially be scaled up to the regional and national levels. Those teams — including KU’s — are being given until May to refine their proposals, after which NSF will choose which among them will receive $1 million grants to proceed to a one-year pilot implementation.
Under the initial KU proposal, Kondyli’s team would do preliminary research into which transportation modes — including the bus system, ride-hailing services and more — best help Kansas City youths connect to OST opportunities, and it will question how the overall transportation system can be redesigned to ensure the social benefits and system efficiency. The team would conduct focus groups and workshops with students and parents affiliated with the schools in underserved neighborhoods of Wyandotte County in Kansas and Jackson County in Missouri to identify acceptable transportation options and potential incentives for encouraging their use.
“Our goal is just to bring the community together, identify the solutions and find the mechanisms to implement and sustain these solutions for the students to use,” Kondyli said.
KU’s partners in the project include community organizations such as the Kansas City Public Library, Wyandotte County Economic Council, Wyandotte County Health Department, KC Social Innovation Center, LeanLab and ThrYve; regional transit organizations such as Mid-America Regional Council, Kansas City Area Transportation Authority and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County-Kansas City, Kansas; and public-private partnerships including Cityfi, Keystone Innovation District and Kansas City Digital Drive.
KU’s team includes Andrew Davidson, assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science; Huazhen Fang, associate professor of mechanical engineering; Lisa Koch, associate director for research, partnership and innovation with the KU Transportation Center; Bradley Lane, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs & Administration; Joel Mendez, assistant professor of urban planning and public affairs, and Jomella Watson-Thompson, associate professor of applied behavioral science.
“The whole goal of this project is to make a sustained effort and not something that will run for a year and then disappear,” Kondyli said. “I think in the long, long term we'll see that the kids will have access to a good selection of out-of-school opportunities to attend, and that will help them in their professional lives. We could potentially see how these students will be able to get more opportunities down the road just by helping them access these opportunities now.”
Photo: Alexandra Kondyli, associate professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, works with KU students in this 2017 file photo. Credit: Andy White, KU Marketing Communications.