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After-School Program For Low-Income Students Threatened By Budget Cuts

An after school program that serves low-income students may be cut if the Trump Administration has its way.  

Federal education officials say the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program is ineffective and amounts to daycare. The program serves about 1.8 million students nationwide and 24,000 in North Carolina. In Charlotte it serves only about 160 students but CMS sees it as an important part of its after-school offerings.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE News
J H Gunn students enjoy play time as participants in the federally-funded 21st Century after school program

One hundred kindergarten through fifth grade students attend the 21st Century program at J H Gunn Elementary in East Charlotte. On this particular day, instead of the usual fare, because Mae Bennett’s students are graduating, she treated them to pizza. Bennett, the program’s lead teacher, is proud of what her students accomplished this year.

“It took us a while to get to know each other and we started out slow but we knocked it out with a bang,” Bennett said. “We started out they didn’t want to do homework. We do 45 minutes and now with consistency, it is second nature to us. They love doing it.”

The students get lots of help with their homework, they play games, work in the computer lab, learn about conflict resolution and take trips to museums, theaters and colleges—things many of their parents cannot afford.

A $1.2 million federal grant has paid for students to attend 21st Century programs at Gunn, Druid Hills Academy and West Charlotte High School over the past four years. The district has had some form of this program since 1994 but funding for it runs out this year.

Testifying before a U.S. Senate appropriations committee this month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called the program ineffective and said it needs to be cut.

“21st Century programs are reaching only less than half of the students of whom they are intended and those who participate there’s inconsistent participation on their part,” DeVos said. “We made tough choices but this one was deemed to be not appropriate for funding from this department.”

Critics of the program say it’s not academically strong and basically babysits students. The most recent Education Department report on the program for 2015 found that nationally nearly half of students in the program showed some improvement in Math and English. Government Accountability Office report found that although some relevant research suggests the program is effective no clear measurements are in place to measure one of the program’s major goals—improving students discipline and behavior.

CMS does not have numbers for how their students in the program are faring. But Colette Jeffries, who oversees all of CMS’s afterschool programs says, “The outcomes we see with these students make a big difference in their lives. If the program is cut, you’ll find more students on the streets, academics may drop some, their social skills will be lacking in the classroom and you’d be able to find that out by talking to teachers and principals of the students in the our program

Jeffries says the 21st Century program is set up like other afterschool programs. The only difference is that 21st Century is free and helps parents who cannot afford the $25 to $65 that most cost per week.

As for DeVos’ assertion that the programs have low attendance, Cyntavia Bryant, says that’s not the case for Gunn. She oversees that school’s 21st Century program

“My only problem is not having enough spots,” Bryant said. “I have 100% enrollment every time. Every day I get calls and I have to turn some away because I don’t have enough capacity.”

Parent Brianna Webber-Lind says she’s glad she was able to get her two sons into the Gunn program. She says it helped both with reading and math and also with problems they had with being bullied

“We’ve struggled with bullying with both and the after school program has helped considerably for them to understand bullying and speak out for themselves,” she said.

As her son Jacob helped with snack cleanup he approached Bryant and asked if she liked powdered or chocolate donuts. She picked powdered, an end of the year gift from him to Bryant. Four years ago Bryant says Jacob was an introvert and would never have approached her like this. He credits the program for the change.

“I get a lot of help here,” he said, smiling. “It’s an amazing thing. I’ve been better at socializing and gotten better academically. The people are nice.”

CMS had planned to expand the 21st Century program next year to reach 200 students. They should get an indication next month whether the program will continue to exist when a Senate appropriations committee is expected to vote on the Education Department’s budget.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.