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After-school programs strapped for dollars
By Lisa Singleton-Rickman - TNValleyNow.com
Allison Carter/TimesDaily
Laura Beth Grissom (left) spins Marybrooke Alexander at the Muscle Shoals Extended Day Program as Samya Whiteside watches. After-school programs have been hard hit by the recession.

The news nationally for after-school programs isn’t good: Nearly two in five programs, or 39 percent, report their budgets are in worse shape today than at the height of the Great Recession in 2008.

Sixty-two percent of the programs report funding is down from three years ago.

A recent survey by the Afterschool Alliance states the rocky economic climate and budget-tightening at the local, state and federal levels have resulted in shrinking budgets for many after-school programs. Programs that primarily serve minority communities have been especially hard hit.

Many involved in programs say there already are negative signs associated with the cuts.

“This is a painful reminder that the nation’s slow road to economic recovery is a particularly rough journey for the after-school programs that children, families and educators rely on,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance.

“These programs aren’t a luxury; they’re vital to a bright future for children all across the country.”

Locally, the two longest-running programs are in the Muscle Shoals and Sheffield school districts. In Muscle Shoals, the program is self-sustaining. The Sheffield program is operated through government grants.

Officials with both programs say they’ve felt the pinch of a struggling economy. Still, they say they must find a way to keep the programs going because it’s too important for too many families.

“We charge parent fees, and that’s the only way we can have our programs,” said Monica Jefferys, community education coordinator for Muscle Shoals City Schools.

There are five after-school programs in the district with only one — Highland Park Elementary — being funded by a grant.

The school qualified for a 21st Century grant because of its percentage of free and reduced-price lunch students.

Jefferys said grants are more competitive than ever. This year only 30 dependent-care grants are being given statewide.

“We depend on grants for extra activities for the children,” she said. “It’s not a baby-sitting service. These students get help with homework and any academics they may be struggling with. But the extras are what makes the program really special. This year we’ll hire an art teacher to travel to each of the sites and teach the children. We’ve offered karate and other special services that the kids love, but we’re limited by the resources we have available.”

Jefferys said it’s getting more difficult to fund the program because costs are rising, but only so much cost can be passed on to parents who also are struggling financially at times.

“Last year we had a price increase, and I hated it because I know it’s hard on parents,” she said. “We have great parents, and they see the benefit of the program. We’re helping these kids become better students.”

In Muscle Shoals, part- and full-time after-school care is available.

Sheffield’s program is in its sixth year, with each year funded by the 21st Century grant program. The district’s grant writer, Sherri Baker, said before the grant program became available there wasn’t an after-school program, although it had long been needed.

“This program just really opened doors for us,” Baker said. “We provide tutoring and even grade recovery at the high school, but it’s all done in the extended hours outside of school. We have certified teachers working with the children, and that adds a level of comfort for parents.”

The Sheffield after-school programs charge $5 per day and are open to all students.

Based on the feedback the Sheffield programs have received, Baker said she doesn’t know what parents did before they were available.

“We’re hearing discussion of (the federal government) watering down what the grant money can be used for,” Baker said. “It will really hurt programs like ours because we’re a small school district. We’ve kept a fund so that we can try to keep the program going, because you always run the risk of losing the funding from grants.”

Proposed changes to the 21st Century funding initiative include redirecting some of the money to new purposes. It could divert after-school funding to a longer school day.

The survey shows that 85 percent of programs anticipate the challenging economic climate to adversely affect their programs during the current school year.

“It’s no doubt that many of our programs are being targeted for cuts in some capacity,” Baker said. “But we see firsthand the needs being met and we’re doing everything we can to hang on.”

Lisa Singleton-Rickman can be reached at 256-740-5735 or lisa.singleton-rickman@TimesDaily.com.

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