SCHENECTADY -- After the closing bell at Schenectady High School on Tuesday, dozens of students spilled into the school library, gathering at computers or tables labeled for different subject areas: math, social studies, English language arts.
Content area teachers sat at some of the tables, working alongside individuals or small groups of students. Other students did work on their own or chatted in small groups scattered throughout the library. The students are fed – chicken sandwiches on Tuesday – and provided transportation at the end of the program, which gives student a place to study, socialize and meet with teachers until 6:30 p.m. each night.
“This program allows me to start building relationships with students; they are more willing to listen to what I have to say,” said high school math teacher Pam Eighmie as she worked through an algebra and geometry assignment with junior Demetreaon Douglas. “It’s not me standing in front of a classroom and spewing at them.”
Students sitting at a table beside her jumped back and forth to ask for help with this problem or that one. Douglas drops by the after-school program almost every day for help and to catch up on work.
“I like how it brings everyone together; we can trust each other. It connects us,” Douglas said. “It helps motivate me to do what I need to do to graduate.”
Similar program serve students at Central Park and Mont Pleasant middle schools, and at Pleasant Valley and Martin Luther King elementary schools. Next year, the federal grant that pays for the program will support similar programs at the high school, all three middle schools, Steinmetz learning center and Keane Elementary School.
All together, Schenectady schools are set to receive $1.2 million annually for the next five years under the 21st Century Community Centers grant, which supports the after-school program at the high school. But that’s only if the federal money is still there. Albany and Troy schools have also scored grant funding: each around $1 million annually for the next five years.
The budget proposal released last week by the President Donald Trump, however, seeks to eliminate the $1.2 billion program that supports thousands of after-school and summer programs across the country, including the major afterschool programs offered in Schenectady schools.
While daily attendance fluctuates, especially at the high school, district official count a combined enrollment of over 750 students at the five district program. The grant funding also supported about 180 students in a trio of summer programs.
The president’s administration said the program “lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives,” and supporters of that position cite a 2005 US Department of Education study of the program that concluded elementary students who participated were “no more likely to have higher academic achievement” and “more likely to engage in some negative behaviors” than students who did not participate.
But advocates of the programs cite their own studies that show afterschool and summer programs – including the 21st Century Community Learning Centers – do have measurable impacts on student performance. Heather Weiss, director of the Harvard Family Research Project, told the Washington Post that “there is a lot of evidence. Engaging kids in high-quality program, many of which are supported by (the grants), results in kids doing better in. They’re more likely to graduate and to excel in the labor market.”
At Schenectady, program leaders and site coordinators say the anecdotal evidence supporting the benefits of the program is innumerable, pointing to students who have built relationships with other students or developed a newfound ability to communicate with teachers and ask for help. The program also takes students on field trips to college and other areas – they are visiting Boston next month – and relies on the Boys and Girls Club to provide social, leadership and character skills development.
“It would be a great loss for students who need support,” Simone Miranda, the district coordinator of the 21st Century program, said of potentially losing funding for the program. “It would be a tremendous loss – a tremendous loss for all schools not just Schenectady.”
Beyond the 21st Century grants, state officials and district leaders are concerned about education funding cuts across the board. And district leaders, like Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring, said if New York receives less federal money so will local schools.
“They have a misguided sense of what it is they hope will happen with that,” Spring said of people who criticize the afterschool programs’ effectiveness, pointing out that the funding goes only so far in filling the funding gap he argues holds the district back. “They want to see significant changes in graduation rates and reading levels… saying $1.2 million will fix the graduation gap is a little bit of a misnomer.”
On Monday, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia spent the day in Washington, meeting with Congressional staff and pressing them to maintain education funding. “Proposed cuts to (US Education Department) budget show an irresponsible disregard for vital education programs,” she tweeted from the Capitol.
Overall, the state Education Department receives $3.6 billion in federal funding each year, most of which passes through to school districts. A department spokeswoman said they were still analyzing the extent and potential impact the proposed budget cuts would have for New York.
“The very programs (Trump) proposes to cut play a critical role in fostering equity and eliminating the education gap that exists across our nation,” Elia said Friday of Trump’s budget in a joint statement with Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa. “Such substantial, wholesale cuts imperil important local programs… (and) is a disservice to New York’s children.”