By Charles Honey and Erin Albanese
In the library of Harrison Park School, Ryan Rose read aloud from a book about African animals as a dozen students listened expectantly.
“We all went on a safari, past an old Acadia tree,” Rose read. “Nearby, giraffes were grazing. Caleb counted three.”
The children broke into screams of laughter and pointed at their classmate Caleb, the designated giraffe-spotter. They were learning about animals, but having plenty of fun as well.
This is the LOOP program, which serves about 3,000 children from Grand Rapids Public Schools with after-school learning, recreation and meals five days a week. Under the federal education budget proposed by President Donald Trump, it would be eliminated.
GRPS and other school districts in Kent ISD are responding with alarm to the proposed $9.2 billion in cuts to the U.S. Education Department budget, which is now being taken up by Congress. Among its many effects on local school districts, the 13.5-percent spending reduction would eliminate a $1.2 billion grant program for after-school and summer programming.
School leaders are speaking out against many of the proposed cuts, such as $2 billion in grants for teacher development as well as reductions in special-education funding. But of particular concern is cutting off funding for after-school and summer programs that serve some 6,500 students in Grand Rapids, Kentwood and Wyoming. More than $8 million was awarded this year to districts in those cities by the Michigan Department of Education, which administers the federal grants for the state.
“Just the mere fact the president has proposed such dramatic cuts to public education creates this level of uncertainty, at a time when we have finally stabilized our district,” said John Helmholdt, GRPS executive director of communications and external affairs. “It’s sending a signal that they’re disinvesting in public education, disinvesting in public school teachers, and that they don’t value after-school programming.”
Helmholdt and GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal last week met with U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, telling the 3rd District congressman the proposed budget would cost GRPS more than $8 million. That includes nearly $4 million from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant for the LOOP program. Without replacement funding, that program would be eliminated, they said.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this” if federal funding is axed, said Irma Alicia Lopez, director of the LOOP program. “There’s no way.”
Earlier this year, the Grand Rapids Board of Education issued a statement that the proposed budget would have a “devastating impact” on the schools and community, asserting programs like LOOP and professional development for teachers are “increasing student achievement and helping more students graduate.”
Amash issued a statement saying it was great to hear of the “impressive progress” GRPS has made in recent years, and that he will “discuss these issues with my colleagues as Congress prepares its own budget and appropriations.”
Schools just south of Grand Rapids also would take a huge hit. The TEAM 21 after-school program serves 15 schools and over 2,000 K-8 students in the Wyoming, Godfrey-Lee, Godwin Heights and Kelloggsville districts. It also offers a six-week, full-day summer program including academics and enrichment activities like field trips and exposure to careers.
TEAM 21 is funded entirely through the federal grant program with a budget of more than $2 million, employing 80 staff members during the school year and 100-plus in the summer.
“That money is never going to be able to be made up by local districts if it’s eliminated,” said Scott Bloem, TEAM 21 program director.
Bloem notes that in the districts it serves, 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. TEAM 21 provides students a dinner and snack along with transportation.
“I think it’s a shocking suggestion (that these programs could be cut) and I think a lot of people would agree with me,” Bloem said, adding the programs receive broad support from people regardless of political affiliation. “It’s really shocking news that this is even being discussed.”
Becki Barrenger, assistant project director for Kentwood Public Schools’ after-school and summer program ARCH, said the program is licensed to serve up to 1,500 students across 15 sites, though numbers fluctuate. It is funded completely by the 21st Century fund with three $675,000 grants, each serving five sites.
“I truly believe in this program and I believe it’s made a difference in the lives of our students and their families,” Barrenger said. “I want to see it in our community for years to come. I think it’s necessary and needed.”
Investment or Disinvestment?
Their perspective is far different from that of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who in announcing the budget called it a “historic investment in America’s students.” The West Michigan native touted it as returning decision-making to the states and more control to parents while providing more options for school choice, including $250 million to provide private-school vouchers and $167 million more for charter schools.
DeVos asserted the budget maintains support for vulnerable students but takes “a hard look at programs that sound nice but simply haven’t yielded the desired outcomes.” One of those, she argued, is the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which her budget outline said “lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives, such as improving student achievement.”
Local school and civic officials strongly disagree.
In Wyoming, Grand Rapids and elsewhere, the benefits of after-school and summer programs are multifaceted, officials say. Among them: a safe environment for youths who might otherwise be unsupervised; nurturing relationships with caring adults; extra academic help; and exposure to cultural experiences and possible career fields.
The programs’ worth is attested to by strong demand from parents, said Lynn Heemstra, executive director of Our Community’s Children, a partnership between the City of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Public Schools and the community.
Heemstra works with after-school program providers as part of the ELO Network, a coalition of community stakeholders consisting of over 60 organizations serving over 21,000 children at 180 sites, to help after-school programs shape curriculum around academics and enrichment including exposure to careers. Many programs have more demand than space for students, she said.
“There continues to be waiting lists for students. As after-school programs become more tuned into science and math and those kinds of programs, there is greater demand.”
Programs such as LOOP, TEAM 21 and Kentwood’s ARCH provide a safe environment for many low-income students whose parents work two to three jobs, Heemstra said. “The majority of our kids, 99 percent, are not involved with the police and we know that for a fact.”
A 2014 report by the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University found a 44 percent drop in Grand Rapids juveniles involved in crime or curfew violations from 2006 to 2012. While many factors may have contributed, the report notes a major increase in after-school programming since 2001 aimed to make “a positive impact on the life trajectories of Grand Rapids’ children.”
Heemstra said students in after-school programs, especially African-American and Latino males, are doing better academically than those who aren’t, and all students have better school attendance than those not in programs. The ELO Network provides data on those trends, while Johnson Center research shows African-American students in after-school programs are 1.5 times more likely to meet or exceed growth expectations in math than non-participants, Heemstra said.
“If those programs are not there, the communities are going to see some repercussions,” she said.
In Wyoming, more than 90 percent of parents surveyed said their children are getting better grades and have better homework completion because of TEAM 21, and 97 percent say “staff know how to work with a child like mine,” Bloem said.
A Parent’s Perspective
Lisa and Jordan Wiseman’s twin daughters, fifth-grade Wyoming Intermediate School students Carmen and Cadia, have been attending TEAM 21’s after-school and summer programs for several years, beginning as Oriole Park Elementary students.
“At first it was something they could do that was fun during the summer,” Lisa Wiseman said. “Then, as they got older they needed a little help in certain areas, and it wasn’t difficult to convince them to go because they had been going and had fun.
“That worked for me because I was able to pick them up after I got out of work,” she added. “They would get help with their homework and it would be all done by the time I pick them up to take them home.”
It was particularly helpful this school year for Carmen while 10-year-old Cadia spent many days in the hospital receiving treatment for leukemia. “Carmen welcomed the distraction,” Wiseman said.
Cadia continues to recover, and both girls are enrolled in the summer program, partly because Cadia missed quite a bit of school, their mother said.
If TEAM 21 is eliminated, it would be “a huge loss” for many Wyoming families will be negatively impacted, Wiseman said.
“It gives the kids something to do in the summer. So many of these kids have parents who work during the day. They get breakfast and lunch (during the summer and dinner during the school year), which helps a lot of the lower-income families.”
Local and National Pushback
Heemstra’s office is working with the Michigan Afterschool Partnership to advocate for programs at the federal and local levels, and make sure the public is more aware of their importance by spreading the word. Our Community’s Children is also advocating for the State of Michigan to match the 21st Century grant funds, as well as tapping other potential funding sources.
Despite the uncertainty around the 21st Century program, the Michigan Department of Education plans to announce 2017-18 grant awards in the next few weeks, said spokesman William DiSessa.
At the national level, ASSA: The School Superintendents Association is lobbying against what it calls “deep, damaging cuts” in federal funding. After-school funding in particular has had broad, bipartisan support from Congress in the past, as a proven program to help provide structure, academic enrichment and social support in students’ lives, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate director for policy and advocacy. She noted some programs for older students include college guidance, mental-health counseling and teen pregnancy reduction.
“The neediest communities tend to be the poorest, meaning they’re disproportionately reliant on federal dollars,” Ellerson Ng said, adding that eliminating after-school funding “disproportionately impacts students who need it the most.”
She said the chances of the budget being approved by Congress in its current form are “next to none.” Indeed, during DeVos’ testimony this week before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Republican chairman Sen. Roy Blunt said deep cuts to programs such as after-school would be “all but impossible” to get through Congress.
However, Ellerson Ng said lawmakers must be held accountable based on what students need, not on this proposed budget: “We cannot allow a very flawed Trump proposal to become a baseline to measure anything realistic. Because the Trump budget is unrealistic.”
Impact is Academic… and Beyond
Back at Harrison Park School, students spent an afternoon earlier this semester doing lots of things, starting with an hour of help with homework. Fourth-graders split for the gym while younger students did crafts centered on African cultural studies: making necklaces in the style of the Masai people, or painting African thumb pianos. Fifth- and sixth-graders created bright, splashy paintings using a pendulum.
They were supervised by staff from the YMCA, one of three partner agencies that run LOOP programs at about 30 GRPS schools. Others are United Methodist Community House and Camp Fire West Michigan 4C (see related story).
A big plus for these students is the friendships and relationships they build, said Lopez, who’s directed LOOP for five years.
“If they’re not in sports, they have something they’re attached to,” she said. “Parents are always so grateful, because they see the students more outgoing, more interested in coming to school. I think the interest in coming to school and having better attendance is because they are building those relationships and are more social.”
That spills over into academic gains in the classroom and fewer chronic absences, she added.
Ryan Rose, the site coordinator, says LOOP creates a supportive atmosphere.
“They’re with people who care about them, and they feel safe and it’s fun,” Rose said. “It motivates them to want to come to school, because they know they’re a part of LOOP, and then they engage throughout the school day.”
At the end of the afternoon, students would take home snacks provided by Kids’ Food Basket; middle school students get hot meals provided by the YMCA.
All told it was a full afternoon for students, of the kind Lopez hopes will be able to continue. If not, she doesn’t know what parents would do who can’t afford child care, or what students would do without the structure of LOOP.
“What are they going to do after school, if there’s no funding?” she said. “It would be a huge loss for the kids, and for the families.”
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