ST. LOUIS, Mo. – A charter school district in St. Louis is building and strengthening relationships between inner-city youth and police officers through a pen pal program called “Blue Pals.”
KIPP St. Louis has partnered with the St. Louis Police Department to give kids and police officers an opportunity to get to know one another in a positive light. All 5th grade students are assigned a police officer of the same gender at the beginning of the school year and exchange written letters with the officers throughout the year.
Then, at the end of the year, the officers visit the school where their Blue Pal is and get to spend some face-to-face time with the student they’ve been getting to know over the course of the school year.
“The concept was to break down the barriers between police and communities and build relationships,” KIPP St. Louis Superintendent Kelly Garrett told The Heartlander. “I believe we need to build up our community and teach people to care about and understand each other’s perspective and opinion. And I believe it goes both ways.”
The pilot version of the program started at KIPP Inspire Academy during the 2016-2017 school year. After a resounding success, the Blue Pals programs expanded to the other KIPP schools in St. Louis.
“It was unbelievable,” Garrett said of his first experience witnessing the two groups meeting in person. “I was shocked to see how nervous the police officers were to meet their pen pals and the kids were equally as excited. When they all came together, it was so powerful.”
Garrett said each of the officers brought small gifts as tokens of appreciation for the students’ friendship. One officer even admitted to putting on makeup, which she never did for work, before meeting her Blue Pal because she was so nervous about making a positive first impression, Garrett said.
“After an hour, hour-and-a-half, we had to break up the kids and officers so everyone could go back to work,” Garrett said with a laugh. “They just didn’t want to end it. It was one of those truly heartwarming, inspirational experiences.”
Unfortunately, after a few years of repeated success, the program – and a good portion of the country – shut down completely due to COVID-19. However, Garrett is fully determined to bring Blue Pals back for the upcoming school year and doesn’t see much, if anything, standing in their way of doing so.
“The goal is to get this program going again and expanding to other schools,” he said of the upcoming school year. “We can actually do this. We can bring together sectors that don’t seem like they’re going to mesh well, but they do.”
KIPP stands for Knowledge is Power Program and it is a national charter school organization. KIPP currently has six schools located in St. Louis as well as a handful of others in Kansas City and other parts of Missouri.
Garrett applauded both the students and the police officers for having such an open and welcoming approach to the Blue Pals program. The superintendent believes the program not only benefits the community, but also benefits the specific officers and students who participated for years to come.
“My favorite part about the Blue Pals program is the impact of building relationships with people who you weren’t necessarily supposed to meet or even grow fond of. That broke down so many stereotypes and so many misconceptions and built true, lasting relationships that I believe will impact both those kids and police for lifetimes.”