Budget cuts hurt after-school programs

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On a Friday afternoon at the PS 64 elementary school in the East Village, students eagerly streamed out of classrooms at 3 p.m., but while most children are excited to leave at the end of the day, these students can’t wait to stay at school and get to their after-school program.

One of the students, Samantha Alvarez, a fourth grader at PS 64 stood in a bright classroom mummifying apples as part of a science project.

“I’m like ok, can I just get over with day school and get to after school,” Alvarez, who is one of 60 students in the program, said. “I’m very hyper about it.”

PS 64 receives funding from both the city and the state, but this past year, the program lost its state funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC).and as a result, the program lost of 80 of its 120 students and 21 of its 30 staff members.

According to the New York State government web site, “For the 2008-09 school year, $10.00 million is recommended for programs to provide academic enrichment outside of the regular school hours primarily for children attending high-poverty and low-performing schools and schools identified as being in need of improvement.”

So, elementary schools like PS 64 that were not in need of improvement were not a high priority and in turn got their funding cut for the 2008-2009 school year.

Sarah Morgridge is the executive assistant to New York City council member, Robert Jackson, who is also the chair of the education committee.

While Jackson did not participate in the state-level negotiations, Morgridge did see the tensions the city council faced when forced to choose between cuts to the schools themselves and secondary education such as after-school programs.

“I mean neither of these are things that you want to cut, they both have profoundly negative consequences,” she said. “When you start cutting those programs, you are just unleashing a whole flood of bad things on the margin of society and that pulls every body down.”

The PS 64 program is run by the Educational Alliance, as well as the Boys and Girls Club.  The Educational Alliance has been a part of the Lower East Side community for 120 years, offering programs for everyone from kindergarten students to senior citizens.

Chino Okonkwo, a division director at the Educational Alliance, who runs the after-school programs; she knows the impact that a good after-school program can have not just on the students, but on a community as a whole.

“The community needs it, those working families don’t have places to send their children and if they do, it’s with someone within their family, like a grandparent,” Okonwo said. “Studies show that if students have access to highly enriched activities in the afterschool hours, it increases their self-esteem, it increases their motivation to come to school. So, a child being enrolled in a high quality afterschool program is really important to their development.”

A recent study done by the Coalition for After-School Funding showed that students that participate in these programs have higher standardized test scores, improved social skills and are less likely to be involved in violence and drugs.

Anju Rupchandani, the program director at PS 64, is still reeling from the effects of the budget cuts.

“For the budget cuts, we had to choose families on a first-come, first-serve basis,” Rupchandani said. “As opposed to allowing everybody to belong to our program, now we give preferences to working families instead of other families…it’s just very sad all of the budget cuts that we’ve had, we can’t offer the services that we used to.”

The afterschool program at PS 64 prides itself on being a big part of the community, they want to be able to focus not just on the children, but on their families as well. This year, due to the budget cuts, they were not able to provide a lot of the services they had hoped to implement.

“We were hoping to come into this new school year offering a lot of services to families, like GED programs, resume writing and career prep…those were some of the things that we scheduled ourselves to do and because of the budget cuts, we weren’t able to offer those services to families,” Rupchandani said. “We don’t believe in only servicing the child, we believe in servicing an entire family, we’re servicing the community, not just one person.”
Zenaida Watson is a group leader that works at the after-school program at PS 64, as well as a parent herself. She understands the program’s importance to students and parents alike.

“It benefits the kids a lot, because parents need a place for their kids to come to, “ she said. “I mean this is like a safe haven place, where they know their kids are safe instead of out on the streets or with a babysitter that their parents can’t afford.”

Watson heard firsthand from distressed parents after the budget cuts were announced. Many of the parents work full-time jobs and don’t have the money for a baby-sitter for their child, so without the after-school program, they have no other option for after-school care.

“You know, I have parents really depressed and stressed over it, about how they have no place to send their kids,” Watson said.  “When we had the budget cuts, we had parents crying like, where are we going to send our kids and you know it’s hard to explain that this is not our fault, this is what happened with the economy…it’s heartbreaking.”

The 60 children that can still participate in the program have different options every day. They can play basketball or tennis, work on their homework, create art projects, participate in cooking classes or take field trips all over the city.

One of the more unique elements of this particular afterschool program is the “Power Hour” that they offer. It is one hour designated every day for students to work one on one with a group leader on their homework. This benefits the students by allowing them to work through any questions they may have in specific subjects.

Homework is not something that most children would look forward to, but for Dylan Penalo, a fourth grader, it is something that really stands out about his time in the afterschool program.

“One of the things that I really like is doing my homework, because sometimes when I go home, sometimes I don’t understand my homework so …all the people in the afterschool help me with my homework,” Penalo said.

Penalo is not alone, many of the students in the program named homework help as one of the best parts of the program.  Michael Tirado, who is in the fifth grade, sometimes has a hard time finishing his homework at home and really benefits from the help he gets at the “Power Hour.”

“It’s like when I get home it’s harder for me to do my homework by myself, but when I come to afterschool, they actually help me do my homework so I get it done before I get home,” Tirado said.

Damika Islar, the program coordinator, sees the positive changes in the students and knows that the after-school program plays a large role in helping their development. Islar has been working for the program for almost five years, so she has seen children blossom over time at the program.

“It is really effective for them,” she said. “It gives them a positive outlook on things that they can still do, we give them a lot of room to grow in this program.”

While the benefits of after-school programs are widely known, the current state of the economy has forced the state of New York to make major budget cuts in every area.