Harlem school gets an early glimpse of life without 21st Century grants
Funding cuts threaten after-school programming nationwide, and some principals are taking action.
Dawn Brooks-Decosta is trying to raise $250,000 by the time school starts up again for the 2017-18 academic year. Brooks-Decosta is principal of the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School (TMALS), a public school in Harlem, and she and her staff found out in the spring that they would not be receiving federal funding for their after-school program next year.
For several years now, that money has been considered a given. Yet even before any budget decisions have been made in Washington, D.C., where the Trump administration has suggested cutting the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program entirely, Brooks-Decosta has been scrambling. The New York State selection process was particularly competitive this year when it came to allocating the federal dollars, and TMALS didn’t make the cut.
But the after-school program at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School is not considered extra.
“When parents come to orientation, we say breakfast starts at 7:30 and their child should be picked up at 5:30,” Brooks-Decosta said.
All of TMALS’s students stay for the after-school program, which provides additional academic support two days per week and enrichment opportunities beyond that. From 2:40 to 5:15 p.m. that means extra instruction from teachers that reinforces content discussed during earlier classes and access to yoga, visual arts, violin, African drumming, dance, step, chess, debate, gardening, and track.
Last year, the bulk of the money funding all of these activities came from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. But around the country public schools are finding they can’t rely on government funding for activities that have become central to their missions.
In Philadelphia Mighty Writers founder Tim Whitaker said he is seeing growing demand among principals for additional outside opportunities. In a financially troubled city school system, principals, he said, are recognizing they can’t depend on the school district to provide all of what students need.
Mighty Writers, founded in 2009 to teach free after-school writing courses to low-income K-12 students in Philadelphia, now has four freestanding centers that serve some 2,500 students from about 175 different schools. But Whitaker said he is in talks with principals who want to bring the organization inside their buildings. Libraries that have been closed for years now because of budget cuts might soon be repurposed as writing labs.
Some after-school programs like Mighty Writers survive on federal funding. The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant program has distributed nearly $5.6 billion since 2012. The Philadelphia nonprofit, though, stays away from government funding. And now it seems especially clear why — a change in administration can bring a swift change in fortunes.
Whitaker said he designed his organization’s fundraising strategy to mirror the Obama campaign’s strategy.
“We’d rather have a whole lot of small- to medium-sized donors than to be dependent on a huge government grant,” Whitaker said. “That philosophy has done well by us.”
He expects it could also do well by individual school programs, too. He recommends principals be aggressive in marketing their schools and finding outside funding.
At the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School, which serves about 220 kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, a GoFundMe page is one of Brooks-Decosta’s strategies to recoup funding. She is also courting local donors. The worst-case scenario for her is being forced to ask parents to make contributions for the program. Brooks-Decosta said it wouldn’t be impossible to scale back from a whole-school model, but she doesn’t know how she would decide which students should get access to the opportunities.
And if her after-school programs get canceled, she worries it will put her school enrollment in danger. The extended day helps TMALS be a “school of choice” for families.
“There are a great deal of charter schools in Harlem,” Brooks-Decosta said. “We have to be able to offer something more, something different, something that parents would want to choose.”
And while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has called the effectiveness of after-school programming into question, both Brooks-Decosta and Whitaker have data from their own programs to say the impact is real.
At TMALS, Brooks-Decosta said the extra academic support provides clear benefits in the classroom, and the exposure to enrichment activities gives children a chance to thrive outside of academics. This leads to greater self-esteem among students, Brooks-Decosta said, and contributes to their willingness to try in subjects they may struggle in.
Whitaker, too, mentions self-esteem. Students who learn how to express themselves through writing gain more confidence in themselves, which can create virtuous cycles leading to other successes.
And for many students, the only time for this development comes after school.
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