Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New York Times: A Harsh Lesson in Finances for After-School Students by David Gonzalez...

Graduating from high school should not be in the realm of the incredible. Tell that to Joseph Guerrero. He arrived at Lower East Side Preparatory High School two years ago as a 19-year-old fleeing a much larger school where he had spent a few frustrating, anonymous years. He had talked to nobody and kept to himself.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Alicia Matthews, a counselor at P.S. 20, helps students with a puzzle during an after-school program.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Table tennis is part of the after-school curriculum for Kevin Linn, a 10th grader at Lower East Side Preparatory High School. The school’s after-hours program includes athletic as well as academic offerings.

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Ramel Govantes picks up his daughter, Bria Smalls, who attends the after-school program at P.S. 20.

At his new school, piggybacked on the top floors of a middle school, he learned to get involved and meet other students. More important — especially for a young man who had been close to ditching school altogether — he enrolled in after-school programs that gave him extra hours of tutoring each day in any subject he needed.

“If not for the after-school program I don’t think I’d be graduating with a high school diploma,” said Mr. Guerrero, who plans to attend community college. “I wouldn’t believe it, but I do. Everybody who knows me believes it.”

That includes Martha Polin, the school’s principal, who speaks of Mr. Guerrero’s progress with a mixture of pride and relief. Her mood is tinged with disbelief — not at his graduation, but at the precarious state of financing for the after-school curriculum that helped Mr. Guerrero and hundreds of other students over the last five years.

Lower East Side Prep’s after-school program is among 207 statewide, serving kindergarteners through high school students, that are about to run out of government support. They will have to drastically reduce operations or close unless $30 million can be raised before September.

“It is going to be really difficult to maintain our academic success,” said Ms. Polin, whose program relied on $206,000 in federal funds administered by the state. “There is nothing I can do now to replace that kind of funding. I’m just surprised that something so successful is allowed to end with a thud.”

In New York City, there are 118 after-school programs, serving almost 20,000 children, that are facing the financial crunch, said Lucy Friedman, the executive director of the After-School Corporation, a nonprofit group that helps programs with financing and advice. Most of them are run in a partnership with community-based groups.

While people unfamiliar with them might believe the programs are merely fun and games, they offer children a safe environment while their parents are working. They also provide academic tutoring and classes in subjects like art and music that have often been cut from the regular school day.

“The hours from 3 to 6 used to be a family’s responsibility, when moms were at home,” Ms. Friedman said. “But dynamics have changed, and both parents often have to work. To not continue funding this violates a trust and takes away something parents have come to expect.”

At many schools around the city, summer is being greeted with trepidation as administrators and parents consider the possible dismantling of the after-school programs when they return in September.

Intermediate School 238, in Hollis, Queens, is a place of accomplishment. Administrators said that in the late 1990s, I.S. 238 was the worst school in its district. Today, test scores and attendance have improved, and the school regularly sends several dozen eighth-grade graduates to specialized high schools. Posters brag that the school is “the Home of Scholars and Champions.” And instead of bells or buzzers, the change of periods is marked by the “Jeopardy” theme.

Joseph Gates, the principal at I.S. 238 since 2003, credits much of the improvement to the variety of academic and cultural activities offered after school. Every day, children take 90 minutes of music, dance or drama as well as 90 minutes of academics. It adds up to 20 extra school days a year.

“This has become part of the culture of our school,” Mr. Gates said. “I have over 70 percent of my kids below the poverty level. This program results in academic excellence. We’re very proud of it.”

If he cannot come up with the $220,000 that the federal government had provided, I.S. 238 will have to cut many of its cultural programs. The school will be able to continue some of its academic offerings thanks to other grants. Still, Mr. Gates and his colleagues see the cutbacks as a blow to a school that has gotten used to having a student orchestra and a dance troupe that has performed at Walt Disney World.

At Public School/Middle School 20 in the Bronx in early June, children intently painted summery beach scenes or scampered about the gym in a soccer game that more closely resembled a free-for-all. Others did homework or learned about healthy eating habits. By late afternoon, their parents — themselves tired from work — were dropping by to take the children home.

“I’m upset,” said Shantina Ramos, who will have two children at the school next year. “There are a lot of working families here. This is going to be difficult for me. If they are not in a program, then we’re going to have to bring them home, bathe them, feed them and help them their homework, too. That’s a lot for a working parent.”

After-school programs in New York City are financed through a patchwork of sources, with the lion’s share coming from city government. According to figures compiled by Ms. Friedman’s group, the city contributed $113.5 million this school year, with the state adding $25.1 million. The federal government’s contribution is $66.2 million, much of it from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program that helps schools serving poor children.

The federal grants are distributed by state education authorities in a competitive process. The 207 schools that have been receiving grants for the past four and a half years in the program’s first phase will end their participation this month. Several hundred other schools that started receiving money later will continue to receive grants for several years.

After-school program advocates and school administrators said they had been led to believe for much of this school year that programs like the one at Lower East Side Preparatory High School, which received money during the first phase, would be eligible for renewed financing.

But in mid-February, they were told by state officials that the money would not be renewed. By then, advocates said, it was too late to line up alternatives. Instead, the advocates have been joined by parents, students and administrators in urging the Legislature and Governor Eliot Spitzer to add $30 million to the state budget to give the programs an extra year to find new sources of support. So far, the Legislature has allocated only $7.5 million.

Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the New York State Education Department, said there was never a commitment that financing would continue. The programs had always been urged to locate alternative funds, he said.

“We funded as many as we could,” Mr. Dunn said. “We did everything possible to keep them fully funded in the face of limited federal funds.”

Advocates and program administrators said the current financing structure — a mix of public and private sources — is complicated and inefficient. They said a streamlined approach, coordinated at the state level, would allow them to serve more young people without necessarily increasing budgets.

“The long-term problem is all of these programs have a cycle and a time period under which the funds come down,” said Jim O’Neill, executive director of the Sport and Arts in Schools Foundation, a Queens group that is among the city’s largest after-school providers. “Once they are established, staffed and running, how do you sustain them when there is no consistent source of money? Right now, this is going to affect thousands of kids in New York City, and it’s difficult once you close or cut the program to get them started up again.”

Cutting the after-school performing arts program at I.S. 238 in Hollis, for even a year, would mean having to start over. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Gates, the principal, settled into a chair in the school’s auditorium, where dancers were going through a final practice while a theater group sat in the audience and rehearsed lines from “The Taming of The Shrew.”

“This,” he said, “is the vision I always had for this school.”

Music welled up as dozens of dancers streamed toward the stage from the side aisles. Heads held high and arms held out, they began to sing.

“We’re all in this together,” they sang. “Together. Together. Together.”

Mr. Gates smiled, like someone who knows exactly what he has.