Many afterschool programs remain intact despite budget cuts

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The District’s funding troubles have had some impact on the hundreds of afterschool programs now under way across the city.

Some programs had to pack up and relocate when the District closed two dozen schools last June. Other programs were left scrambling to find volunteers to replace teachers who led afterschool initiatives in past years for extra pay, according to out-of-school-time (OST) advocates in recent interviews.

Despite cutbacks and scrimping, however, the District has kept school doors open for about 100 programs serving more than 3,800 children — and out-of-school programs operating under the aegis of the city’s Department of Human Services overall still reach about 20,000 children in grades K-12 on weekday afternoons.

Over the summer, the focus was on relocating programs impacted by shuttered schools.

The District collaborated successfully with the city and organizations that run afterschool programs to sort out location and other changes, said Tom Sheaffer, a city official who oversaw the startup of an ambitious project to upgrade, promote and coordinate all the out-of-school opportunities in the city regardless who runs them. It is called the OST System of Systems Building Project.

Sheaffer said he was “unaware of any programs that have lost access to buildings or other supports” except for two in Police Athletic League centers that were displaced for a time.

Vicki Ellis, who coordinates afterschool and summer programming for the District, said much the same.

“Afterschool has been kept whole from last year,” she said.

She attributed this to the maintenance of two funding sources — state funds as allocated by DHS, and the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. (Sheaffer has announced plans to retire, and Ellis recently assumed his duties leading the OST umbrella project.)

According to Ellis, the District “has always allowed nonprofit afterschool providers to operate at no cost” because custodial staff members are there cleaning the buildings.

In addition, the District food service department provides food to children in attendance at no cost to providers.

“Providers do not bear that cost, making it significantly cost-effective for [those programs],” she said.

Lorraine McGirt, OST administrator for DHS, stressed that her department “has maintained its commitment and preserved funding at the $21 million level,” about the same as last fiscal year. Nearly $8.5 million of that total is directed to OST programs being operated in District facilities by non-District providers.

The big blow to school-based OST programming was delivered two years ago, when the District lost state funding to run its own remedial programs. Funding plummeted from a peak of $51 million in 2010-11 to $4 million last year. DHS also lost state funding, and its investment in afterschool and summer programming is at least $15 million less annually than it was in 2008.

But McGirt remains upbeat.

“We not only want young people to enroll, but we want them to participate over a period of time. We really stress that. The research shows how beneficial participating in afterschool programs can be,” she said.

A directory of OST programs compiled by the After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP) and published in September shows nearly 900 programs in all Philadelphia zip codes — an increase of about 100 programs over last year. The added listings represent both programs that are new this year and programs that were not previously listed. A list of nearby OST programs is available here.

ASAP director Justin Ennis said student numbers were “holding steady” in the chess, debate, drama, and Scrabble clubs sponsored by his group. Club directors, Ennis said, had to “look for relationships with volunteers to pick up the slack when teachers were not available to lead programs,” as they had in past years when principals had discretionary extracurricular funds to pay for them. City Year participants and college students were sources being tapped, he said.

ASAP staffers were preoccupied in the weeks after schools opened with helping to make sure teachers had the supplies they needed, including copy paper.

“We think now is the time to contribute in any way we can to help the schools get back on their feet,” said Ennis.

Lavarr Zuber, director of the Dream Academy Learning Center, based at Childs School in South Philadelphia, said the fall program got off to a smooth start.

“We have not suffered because we are not funded by the District,” though the District provides the space and a nutritious snack.

With a focus on children who have an incarcerated parent or who have fallen behind academically, the program serves about 80 students with activities aimed at building skills, character and dreams, Zuber said.

“We’ve seen first-hand the impact on our children. They’re being given an opportunity to improve their lives and turn around negative behaviors.”

The Mighty Writers program also is “doing fine,” said director Rachel Loeper, although she added that “our parents are a bit unsettled” about changes in the local schools.

Mighty Writers has two sites, one in South Philadelphia and a new site in West Philadelphia. The mission of these sites, Loeper said, is “to instill a love of writing and a love of education” in the projects that the students undertake after school.

“We’re going strong, but we can’t make up for the deficits impacting our young people,” she said.

Connie Langland is a freelance writer who focuses on education issues.