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Rochester police are teaching teens how to drive

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For many teens, learning to drive is a rite of passage that opens doors to new jobs, a more independent social life. But as a mom of teenagers, I can tell you that learning can also be expensive and time-consuming. Minnesota Public Radio's Catharine Richert reports on a new program in Rochester's public schools that aims to make it easier for students to get their licenses.

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CATHARINE RICHERT, BYLINE: It's a couple of days after Rochester's first big snow, and it's Joyous Bellephant's first winter drive.

JOYOUS BELLEPHANT: Do you have any information about driving on snow and slush?

CHANTEL POWELL: Yeah. You should drive slower (laughter).

RICHERT: That's Rochester Police Department investigator Chantel Powell, one of 20 cops volunteering to help students learn to drive. On this day, she's working with 17-year-old Bellephant, who needs 50 hours of practice to get her license.

POWELL: Take turns and everything slower than what you, you know, normally would.

RICHERT: Yeah, that's a cop in the passenger seat, part of a program to get more teens on the road legally and safely. A recent school district survey of driver's ed students found almost a third had driven without a license. Erin Vasquez, an administrator at one of the participating high schools, says that can be for a lot of reasons - their parents can't drive them, they need to get a job, they want to see friends.

ERIN VASQUEZ: You know, if a student gets a ticket and if they're unable to pay that ticket, then it kind of snowballs. And then sometimes they get buried in fines. Sometimes they don't have access to employment because they don't have the ability to drive.

RICHERT: So last spring, with more than $117,000 in grants and cars donated by the county, the first driver's ed class began. Students pay what they can afford instead of the regular $400 class fee. That's a game changer for 15-year-old Ajulu Othow, who moved here recently from Kenya. There, many people didn't drive because they couldn't afford cars. So Othow sees a license as a way to get a job to help support her family financially.

AJULU OTHOW: Because my dad is the only one working right now - my mom just had a baby, and she can't work. So this is a really big thing for us.

CHRIS JONES: Welcome. All right. Did everybody get a booklet?

RICHERT: At Century High School, teacher Chris Jones says the driver's ed class is intense - three hours a day for 10 days.

JONES: The big barrier is getting the driving hours in. They have to have 50 hours in before they can take their license exam.

RICHERT: And that's where the Rochester Police Department steps in. When kids don't have a car for practice or an adult who can drive them, a police officer teaches them the ropes. Chief Jim Franklin says the new partnership helps get in front of a host of problems that can lead to crime and poverty, like not being able to drive to a job or an after school activity. And he says it's helping cops and young people get to know each other at a time when tensions can be high between law enforcement and people in the neighborhoods they police.

JIM FRANKLIN: There certainly is a community connectedness aspect to it, which does lead to building trust and legitimacy. But there's also a traffic safety nexus, having cops teach kids to be better drivers, which is extremely important for this community.

RICHERT: Back at her lesson, the rapport between Bellephant and Powell is clear. Bellephant calls Powell her cop lady. And Powell knows all about a tragedy in Bellephant's past. Her older brother was driving when he died in a car accident in 2017.

BELLEPHANT: He didn't have his license yet. I wouldn't say boys and stupid decisions - I would just say young kids and making decisions that they think will turn out good, and sometimes they just don't.

RICHERT: Bellephant keeps driving. Powell reminds her to use her turn signal and then tells her she's doing great. For NPR News, I'm Catharine Richert in Rochester, Minn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Catharine Richert