New Activities Needed For Thousands of Kids

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Next year at M.S. 118 in the Bronx, sixth, seventh and eighth graders won’t have the structured afterschool activities they’re used to – from homework tutorials to recreational sports, cooking classes to chess club – if the governor and state legislature fail to find last-minute funding for the school’s afterschool program and more than 100 others like it throughout the city.

“Our school is close to two very, very aggressive gangs here, the Bloods and the Crips,” said Allison Sam, the afterschool program director at the middle school in East Tremont. “These kids are our future leaders, and we’re releasing them out into those streets.”

The city’s 118 imperiled programs plus another 89 statewide enroll about 34,000 participants each year. They make up one of three groups that received five-year awards in 2003 through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers project, a federally funded initiative to create out-of-school learning opportunities for students at low-performing schools in high-poverty areas. The state Department of Education announced in February that due to a lack of federal funding it could not renew the group’s $31.8 million per year contract after it expired at the end of this school year.

New York City afterschool program organizers and advocates are now scrambling to pressure Gov. Spitzer and the state legislature to pass a last-minute “clean up” budget bill to find money in the state budget to fund the programs for the next school year.

“We have two more weeks [before state budget discussions close] and we are going to do all that we can to get this funding renewed,” said John Albert, vice president of external relations at The After School Corporation, a city afterschool program sponsor.

The governor’s office said that in the face of decreased federal funding, the state government has done all it can to make up the programs’ lost funds. “We were able to come up with $7.5 million in the state budget,” said the governor’s spokesman, Brad Maione. “We have attempted every effort within our power to try to restore these funds but certain consideration had to be made.”

Afterschool advocates are mystified by the funding problems, however. They say the federal funding for the 21st Century programs decreased by only $8 million since fiscal year 2005. “We just don’t see major dips on the federal side. The math just doesn’t add up for us,” said Albert.

That could be because the math on the federal level has not added up for much of the programs’ history. The other two groups of funded programs received five-year contracts in 2004 and 2005, worth $40.4 million and $42 million dollars respectively. While it is true that 21st Century money dipped from $94 million in 2004 to $86 million last year, the total cost of funding all three cohorts totaled $114 million last year. The state Department of Education has only been able fulfill each cohort’s contract by carrying over unspent funds from previous years.

“We tried to maximize the amount of money that we can give out so we can benefit as many children as possible,” said state Department of Education spokesman Alan Ray. “This first cohort of programs was committed for a five-year funding cycle and they have gotten every penny. If the federal government had continued the program at a higher level we would be able now to offer, this year, a new program cycle, but they did not.”

Meanwhile the state Department of Education hopes to receive additional federal funding for fiscal 2009 and plans to hold a new round of competitions for funding this fall.

But it appears that many communities grown accustomed to having these programs will suddenly have to make due without them next year. “The afterschool programs at the elementary schools feeding M.S. 118 will still have their funding, so families that have depended on this service for six years will suddenly be scrambling to figure out what to do with their children,” said Sam.

Ultimately, these programs represent an important defense shielding vulnerable youngsters from harsh realities surrounding many city schools. “My big concern is with the kids,” said Sam. “Knowing what their needs are here and not providing them with the resources to fulfill those needs. I really struggle with that.”

– Rob Fischer

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