After-school cuts catch NYC programs by surprise

A group of students sit at a table playing Uno with large format cards.
Students celebrate Thanksgiving in November 2023 at an event held by the COMPASS Explore program run by the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center at Bronx Theatre High School. (Courtesy of Kingsbridge Heights Community Center)

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A group of after-school programs are scrambling to figure out what to do next year, after learning recently their contracts would not be renewed due to Mayor Eric Adams’ budget cuts.

The entire COMPASS Explore program, which offers specialized classes to grades K-12, will be affected. Another program for middle schoolers, the SONYC, or Schools Out NYC, also will lose a number of seats.

The nonprofit organizations running the programs received an email earlier this year from the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development alerting them that their contracts would end on June 30 and would not be renewed.

The cuts, which total nearly $7 million for both programs, came without warning, program directors said.

“We were thinking the agency itself would be hit but not the program itself,” said Derwin Greene, of the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, which runs a COMPASS Explore program at Bronx Theatre High School.

COMPASS Explore serves grades K-12 and typically focuses on a single subject — such as art, music, STEM, or leadership — to give students time to go deep into a particular passion. Some of the programs are specifically aimed at serving LGBTQ youth or students with disabilities. (COMPASS Explore is smaller and offers more specialized services than regular COMPASS, which stands for Comprehensive After School System of New York City programs.)

Cutting the $2.7 million Explore program could have ripple effects beyond the loss of its nearly 1,900 seats, some organizations fear, potentially hobbling their ability to staff other programs since they often cobble together funding from various contracts to offer a fuller array of services.

Of SONYC’s 50,000 seats, the city is cutting about 1,660 slots to achieve a $4.2 million savings, according to public documents.

The Explore program Greene’s organization runs at Bronx Theatre offers juniors and seniors college counseling services, trips to college campuses, and job readiness training. They also work on social-emotional learning, and have a paid youth council where students earn a stipend for advocacy work. During the school day, they have one-on-one office hours for students who might need extra help.

The organization has a separate COMPASS contract for the work they do at the school with freshmen and sophomores. But having only one contract would not be sufficient to keep them afloat at the school.

“The contracts that we have already aren’t even enough,” Greene said. “We supplement with other funding.”

After-school enrollment is trending upward

City records show that the cuts were supposed to be aimed at underutilized programs — ones that did not meet the participation numbers under their contract. But that’s not what happened, according to a survey from United Neighborhood Houses, an umbrella organization working with settlement houses across the city.

Greene said his Explore program often over enrolls students to guard against teens dropping out, but this year they saw fewer kids leave.

Of the COMPASS Explore programs surveyed, most were meeting their benchmarks. Some SONYC providers said they were not meeting their targets, but several contributing factors complicated the narrative as to why, including delayed licenses and background checks for staff, stagnant contracts limiting their ability to pay competitive wages, and changing demographics of their student communities.

City officials said they prioritized the main COMPASS program over Explore since the latter is offered fewer days a week and that they targeted “lesser used” seats based on available data to minimize the impact on families.

“The city is committed to providing high-quality, engaging, and safe afterschool programming,” DYCD spokesperson Mark Zustovich wrote in an email. “DYCD is working with our COMPASS providers to serve as many young people as possible as the budget process continues in the coming weeks.”

Concerns about taking money out of after-school system

Once these after-school seats are cut they are not redistributed to other parts of the system, and that’s a concern as interest in after-school seats has been increasing, nonprofit providers say.

Participation in both city-run programs increased nearly 3% in the first four months of fiscal year 2024 compared to the year before, according to the mayor’s management report.

“Cutting COMPASS Explore and SONYC is taking money out of the after-school system when every dollar is precious,” said Nora Moran, policy director at United Neighborhood Houses. “They’re taken as a savings out of the system, so the overall pot that DYCD has to work with is smaller.”

That’s especially concerning, she said, as the price per participant is higher because other costs have gone up, such as minimum wage.

Farida Mohammed, a senior at the Orchard Collegiate Academy on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is one of about 30 high schoolers in a COMPASS Explore program run by Grand Street Settlement, which is focused on college awareness and career exploration, as well as life skills, financial literacy, and study habits.

“It’s very helpful,” the Bronx 17-year-old said. Through the program, she’s learned how to create a resume, use Notion AI to create a daily planner to help her stay on top of assignments, and improve her public speaking skills. “My counselors at school — they don’t teach stuff like that.”

Grand Street Settlement operates another COMPASS Explore program at P.S. 158 in East New York focused on health and wellness for about 75 students, with a mix of instruction on nutritional eating and making sure kids are physically active.

Thanh Bui, Grand Street Settlement’s chief program officer, is especially concerned about the high school program.

“A lot of times, high school kids are dealt the short end of the stick. They don’t have a lot of services,” she said. “High school kids need a lot of life skills. They are also going through a lot of mental health issues.”

Bui’s organization also lost 15 of 50 SONYC seats it operates at a Catholic school, due to outdated enrollment data, she believes.

Her organization will now have to spend “double time” trying to find other sources of money, likely competing with others vying for the same pool of philanthropic dollars.

“Other organizations are going through the same process of trying to find that supplementary funding,” Bui said.

She was, however, holding out hope that the cuts might be restored.

“The mayor did some magical math a couple of months ago and restored some money back to DOE,” she said, referring to the mayor’s recent funding restorations. “Maybe there’s some magical math that’s going to happen soon.”

Amy Zimmer is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat New York. Contact Amy at azimmer@chalkbeat.org.

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