The Austin Chronicle

Lights Out After School?

By Rachel Proctor May, October 28, 2005, News

AISD has the largest after-school program in Central Texas, serving 13,000 students in 47 schools, but that could change if cuts to the Department of Education budget reduce the money AISD has to spend by three-fourths. That's not a pretty thought: Unless the district can make up the money, it means less karate, ESL, civics, cooking, and other afterschool enrichment classes districtwide. That doesn't simply mean less fun – the district sees significant educational benefits to the programs, with participants showing better attendance, academic achievement, and behavior than students who don't participate.

That's where the Pecan Springs Elementary cheerleaders come in. The Eagles girls, who ranged from roughly two to four feet in height and wore crisp blue cheerleader dresses, stamped, chanted, and shone flashlights at the audience as part of a pep rally the district held last Thursday at Blackshear Elementary to show the importance of keeping "the lights on after school." The rally also featured the Blackshear Elementary choir singing backup to Bill Withers' version of "Lean On Me," a demonstration from the school's karate and kidnap prevention program, and a pair of Ice Bats, whose team had donated 10,000 tickets to AISD afterschool participants for the game the next day. Eagles mom Deborah Johnson, who bopped along to the stamped-out beat and proudly chanted along with the rhymes her daughter Kezhanae hollered from the front row, agreed that afterschool programs help kids stay connected with school and out of trouble. "I do believe that's a true statement," Johnson said.

The plethora of programs may shrink significantly in coming years, however. This is something James Salas, community relations director for AISD, made clear at the rally – that is, when he wasn't whipping the students in the audience into a deafening frenzy with call-and-response chants about keeping the lights on after school! "All these programs are funded by someone else," Salas said. "Sustainability is a constant battle."

Travis County gives $308,000 a year to run crime-prevention afterschool programs in two Northeast middle schools. The city of Austin gives $627,000 for its Prime Time program. The majority of the $4.6 million afterschool budget comes from the federal Department of Education, however, most notably a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, which funds programs at 20 AISD schools at $175,000 a pop. But that funding is slated to run out in three years. "We didn't have a lot of research on it, and what research we have didn't show a lot of results," said Susan Aspey, press secretary for the department. The district is working to find other funding sources – including collaborating with existing nonprofit partners such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of Austin, the Theater Action Project, and Diversified Youth Services, which is responsible for the karate team that performed at the rally.

Salas says everyone is acutely aware the clock is ticking. "We have two years to find a replacement for that money," he said.

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