The afterschool program at my daughter’s school, PS 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, is one of the school's strongest selling points. At 3:00 p.m. on Thursdays, when her kindergarten class ends, her teacher walks her down the hall to her creative drama class, which is taught by a professional actress. It was a hard choice, given that my daughter also wanted to take tap dancing and I wanted her to learn Spanish. When she gets a little older she can get homework help, learn to play chess, or cook with the owner of one of Brooklyn’s best restaurants. Almost all of the two dozen classes offered daily are taught by the school’s teachers or other professionals in their fields.
A third of the 780 students in the school attend the program, which costs $12 a day; families get a discount for more than one child in the program. But since there’s almost no scholarship money available and half the school is eligible for free lunch, it seems likely that many families simply can’t afford the cost.
So what do kids do from 3:00 p.m. until their parents return from work? “There are a million kids in New York City public schools and a million individual solutions,” says Susan Holman, a PS 261 parent and the treasurer of its after school program. “People use nannies, grandparents, older siblings, college students, swapping with friends, taking kids to work with you. It’s an incredible patchwork, and the reason it is that there’s no consistent coherent approach.”
While the lack of centralized data or funding makes it difficult to find how many children are in after school programs in New York City, an estimated 215,000 children in New York City ages 6 to 13 come home from school without a family member to watch them, according to the advocacy group Citizen Action of New York.
After school programs are often created locally, from within a school’s parent body or out of a partnership between an individual school and a community-based organization, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs or the YM and YWCAs, which often receive public funds.
It’s impossible to keep track of every after school program in the city--although the Partnership for Afterschool Education makes a good stab at it through its extensive guide. So it’s difficult to know if programs will have the funds to return the next year and it’s unpredictable which school gets a program and which neighborhood has none.
What is clear is that many programs are threatened. Because of a budget battle in Albany over funding for after-school, 14 programs in New York City serving 2,175 students have been eliminated entirely and 27 have had their funding reduced by a quarter or more.In addition to the state, funding for afterschool programs can also come from the federal government, which just approved $1 billion nationwide, primarily to pay for its 21st Century Community Learning Centers. But the New York City Department of Education also funds afterschool programs through its Office of Youth Development and School and Community Services, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed cutting $10.5 million from New York City’s after school programs last year. In response, the Open Society Institute, which created the Afterschool Corporation in 1998, gave $20 million to New York City to support after school programs it runs for city schools. The donation inspired the mayor to reinstate the cut funds, which combined with the Soros money is dispersed by the Afterschool Corporation in the form of grants to local programs.
Study after study shows that structured after school programs, from tap dancing and chess for elementary school kids to homework help and substance abuse prevention for teenagers, improve children’s experience in school--their attendance, their attitude, even their academic performance and graduation rate. A California study showed the reading and math scores of children in after school programs improved at twice the rate of all students nationwide, for instance.
Children who are set loose at the end of the school day have been shown to be more likely to smoke, use drugs and alcohol, be truant from school and have poor grades, according to the After-School Corporation. Juvenile violence and crime jump after school lets out; teenagers with nowhere to go are 37 percent more likely to become parents.
And taxpayers are in favor of it. A new poll released late last month by the Afterschool Alliance found that voters in general are overwhelmingly willing to use taxpayer money and even pay more in taxes to fund after school programs.
“The days of school getting out early so the students could go home to milk the cows are long past, but our policies still reflect those origins,” says PS 261’s Susan Holman. “Clearly our school calendar does not match the reality of today’s working conditions.”
Sasha Nyary, formerly on the staff of Life Magazine, edits the newsletter of The Fifth Avenue Committee, a community-based organization.