NEW YORK — Last year, the after-school program at P.S. 102 in Elmhurst, Queens shut down due to funding cuts. Without the program, 11-year-old Savannah Colon thought she’d have to ride a city bus back and forth for three hours each day with her 6-year-old sister, until her mother finished work.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Savannah’s mother found a city-funded program called Beacon at I.S. 5, just a couple blocks away.
“My mom was really frustrated,” Savannah said. “But then she found this and she was really amazed. She was praying to God.”
But this year might be different, and Savannah might have to ride that bus after all.
This year is the second time Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed cutting tens of millions of dollars from the programs that fund after-school. Last year, his preliminary budget sliced funding by $56 million.
The New York City Council restored the vast majority of that money using its “discretionary budget,” funds which by design run out after a year. That means this year, the same $56 million is on the chopping block, along with an additional proposed cut of $10 million.
A $66-million cut would mean 37,000 kids currently in programs could go without an after-school program come July, according to the Campaign for Children, an after-school advocacy group based in New York.
But regardless of whether the funds are restored like they were last year, many say the threat is enough to damage the morale of staff, kids, and parents, and even weaken the programs themselves.
Tameeka Ford Norville enjoys spending her days running around the Ingersoll Community Center in Fort Greene, a poverty stricken cluster of blocks in an otherwise flourishing, gentrified neighborhood in north Brooklyn, making sure the kids in her after-school programs are behaving.
But more and more, instead of spending time with children, she’s spending it in her office, planning around a recently announced budget cut that could shutter half her programs, and planning actions to convince Mayor Bloomberg not to go through with it. Ford Norville knows first hand the devastating consequences of young people with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Her brother was shot and killed by a 16-year-old in 2006.
“Our families need more than a place for kids to go, they need a well-designed program, and that requires planning,” said Ford Norville, who runs eight after-school programs for the nonprofit University Settlement. “We’re going to need to take time away from that. Now we have to figure out how to get the staff to design programs and advocate at the same time.”
The budget uncertainty forces nonprofits to work on a short schedule. That makes it hard to communicate with landlords about leases, and for organizations like University Settlement to secure other funding in the form of grants and direct donations – people and organizations are reluctant to give if they don’t know if the programs they gave to will exist in six months.
But the biggest issue, according to staff and administrators of the programs, is how financial uncertainty drains the time and energy needed to create and foster increasingly complex after school programs.
“It’s an undue burden,” said Melissa Aase, the director of University Settlement, which provides after school programs for about 3,000 kids and teens. “It turns our attention and the communities’ attention to survival mode instead of community mode.”
Driven by research out of places like the Harvard Family Research Project, after-school programs have recently morphed from places to keep kids safe until their parents get off work into multi-purpose academic and social learning centers where kids and teens can take tutoring, cooking classes, learn to dance, and seek counseling.
The Beacon Program at Intermediate School 5, funded by the City’sDepartment of Youth and Community Development, is one of those places. The block-long behemoth of a school in Elmhurst, Queens, right off of Flushing Avenue is a four-story maze of enrichment activities from 3 to 6 p.m.
In the massive gym, teenagers play basketball; downstairs, some learn to cook Spanish food; in one room, kids like 11-year-old Savannah Colon are taking “Delta Class” where they learn about their strengths and weaknesses.
Diverse activities are important for kids Savannah’s age. Administrators believe that as kids turn to teens, and get to make their own decisions about how to spend their time, they’re more likely to come to after school programs where they’re provided choices.
“If you’ve got test prep, and dance, and art, and sports, that’s more attractive to a 13-year-old who can choose to come to your program or not,” said Melissa Aase. “They’re not icing on the cake for certain age groups. They are key components.”
But programs with an array options also take the longest to plan, and are often the first things to go when funding is cut, according to Harvard Family Research Project director Heather B. Weiss. She said that’s a problem because the enrichment activities are necessary for kids – especially ones with parents who can’t afford to pay for extracurricular activities – to succeed academically.
“We need to understand what research is telling us,” Weiss said. “Kids don’t learn in school alone.”
Without after-school, teens are also more likely to be lured into dangerous or illegal activity, she said. Weiss said it’s not coincidence the rate of violence and sexual activity for teens is highest between 3 and 6 p.m., if they’re left unsupervised. With less after-school, the city can expect more of those things, according to Weiss and program administrators.
“I see it all the time,” said Chaka Blackman, who directs the Beacon program at I.S. 5 as well as other after school programs. “They’ll be involved in gangs, violence, sexual activity. Afterschool is a safe space.”
That’s why the cuts seem so draconian to Blackman and others involved in after-school.
Blackman, who grew up the daughter of immigrants in East New York, said she knows firsthand how after-school can help disadvantaged kids get a leg up. She calls herself a poster child for the programs.
But feeling a deep connection to the programs she runs doesn’t make fighting to keep them any easier. Blackman said she, and everyone around her, is tired of having to make the case for something they feel is so obviously important.
“We’re seeing a steady decline in parent involvement because they get fatigued,” she said. “And it can be demoralizing for staff, who don’t know if they’ll have a job next year. There’s this whole fatigue. It’s getting harder and harder each year.”
Peter Moskowitz is a journalist from New York City. He’s done work for The New York Times, the Daily News, The New Yorkers, and others covering a range of issues including environmental policy, crime, and health. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeterMoskowitz