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When she heard last fall that she would have to stay in school until nearly 5 p.m., sixth grader Jenaba Sow tried to get out of it by telling her mom she had “after school-itis.” Although the new after-school program at P.S. 109 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, was presented as mandatory, Jenaba managed to skip the first three days.

But then the reviews starting coming in from her friends. There were snacks, one day even pizza. There were activities like science experiments and dance –– appealing to a girl who hates sitting still. Besides which, her mom’s work schedule at the nursing home had changed, and if not at school, Jenaba would have to bounce around between her uncle’s house and a babysitter’s.

Jenaba, like many of her peers, is now an after-school convert. After eight periods of academics, she finds herself looking forward to the hours between 2:30 and 4:50 p.m. “In after school, at least you’re doing something fun that you would enjoy,” said Jenaba, a slender, talkative girl who does well academically. She approves of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s idea to offer a city-run after-school program to every middle schooler in New York.

After-school NYC
Students at Thurgood Marshall Academy work with one of their after-school helpers to figure out a science project. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

The plan, which would be voluntary, not mandatory, was a cornerstone of de Blasio’s educational platform during his campaign, and he’s trying to implement it by the 2014-2015 school year, funded along with universal pre-kindergarten by a tax on the city’s wealthiest residents. If successful, the initiative would be the largest after-school expansion in New York City’s history. It would solidify the city as a national leader in a movement to give young people more time to learn. And in theory, it would help close the gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers, since kids from wealthy homes are more likely to be participating in after-school activities already.
At a press conference this month, de Blasio said a high-quality after-school program can be a “game changer” for a child. “If we don’t want kids going down the wrong path, we have to give them some good options,” he said.

Although the program at P.S. 109 is running more smoothly now, early hiccups –– from transportation logistics and safety concerns for children going home after dark to striking a delicate balance between order and fun –– illustrate the challenges that may come with rolling out a citywide program quickly, and especially one so large.  But the mayor’s office says that after-school programs already have a solid foundation in the city, and de Blasio is confident that it’s possible to rapidly expand the offerings.

P.S. 109 is a combined elementary/middle school where about 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, an indicator of poverty. Its after-school program is starting with the building’s 85 sixth graders, as required by a city grant that funds it.

“Don’t be dejected if all your kids don’t want to stay [at first]. It’s a culture change. They’re your clients. You have to have a good product,” said Sean Davenport, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem.

The school has seen an improvement in sixth graders’ reading comprehension since September, which the principal, Dwight Chase, attributes partly to after-school tutoring. Still, a half a year into the program, he is reluctant to describe it as high-quality, yet. “We’re making it work” despite the early glitches that have strained parents and some staff, he said. “We’ll make it work no matter how much it’s killing us.”

Some skeptics doubt whether de Blasio has the political muscle necessary to realize his goals. He is aggressively lobbying the state legislature to approve a tax hike on those who earn more than $500,000 a year to pay for the middle school plan and his more highly publicized proposal for universal preschool. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has offered state funding for pre-kindergarten to stop de Blasio’s proposed tax increase, and the mayor is facing political pressure to accept. Cuomo has also proposed $720 million to go to after-school programs statewide over five years beginning in the 2015-2016 academic year. De Blasio wants the expansion to start sooner and argues that his proposal will provide a funding guarantee for programs that the state budget cannot.

Other critics question how much of a difference after-school programs can make unless they are part of a broader strategy to reform the city’s middle schools.

Eric Nadelstern, who served as a deputy chancellor under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said after-school programs could play a role in improving the city’s school system, but they need to be part of a much larger effort. De Blasio has also said changes are needed within the regular middle-school day, but he hasn’t proposed anything concrete yet beyond the after-school strategy. Nadelstern, now a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, says that falls short.  “This kind of piecemeal stuff doesn’t create the kind of compelling, coherent strategy that’s necessary,” he said.

De Blasio and other supporters of after-school programs say they can help close the achievement gap by mimicking the kinds of academic and enrichment opportunities middle- and upper-class families give their children after 3 p.m. This would include things like art or music lessons and foreign language or cooking classes.

After-school NYC
A middle schooler at Thurgood Marshall Academy builds a “solar racer” during her after-school program. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

By sixth grade, low-income students have spent 6,000 fewer hours learning than their more affluent peers, according to The After-School Corporation (TASC), a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for extended learning time. More than half of those hours come from after-school activities. Some research suggests that after-school programs can increase academic achievement and instill confidence in students.

In 2010, just 15 percent of elementary through high school students across the country were enrolled in after-school programs, but 38 percent would participate if a program were available, according to a survey of nearly 30,000 parents by the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance. In urban areas, the demand was even higher: Eighteen percent of students attended a program, but 46 percent would if they were able to.

Since 2008, the number of available seats in after-school programs has gone down, while the costs have gone up, thanks to a 2012 shift to run programs year-round and focus more on academics and quality enrichment activities. In 2008-2009, the city spent $105.3 million to serve about 87,000 students, according to the Department of Youth and Community Development, which funds the programs. By 2012-2013, $120 million was allotted for nearly 66,000 students –– up from a low point of 63,000 kids the year prior. More students are served through programs that are not city-run.

De Blasio’s plan calls for all of the city’s roughly 205,000 middle-school students to have the option of attending an after-school program, whether held at a school, a library or a community organization. If the mayor is successful in getting the state legislature to sign off on a tax on the wealthy, it would bring in $530 million for New York City annually, about $190 million of which would go to the middle school after-school programs.

That’s a good start, according to The After-School Corporation (TASC), which supports 66 such programs in New York and provides technical assistance to hundreds of others. The group also created the model programs behind the city’s Out-of-School-Time initiative, which serves thousands of students.

In the 2012-2013 school year, the city budgeted for 13,205 after-school slots for middle schoolers at $2,101 per student. TASC estimates a good after-school program can be done at a cost between $1,500 and $2,000 per student each year, so serving everyone would cost up to $410 million. But de Blasio is estimating that only half of middle schoolers would enroll and is tentatively budgeting $1,600 per child.

Even if the mayor’s proposal doesn’t end up covering everything, schools and their community partners typically build budgets for after-school programs from multiple sources, whether reallocating existing funds or finding outside revenue streams, said TASC president Lucy Friedman. Assuming the mayor’s revenue and enrollment projections are accurate, she said his plan should meet basic needs but noted that she has not seen specific details of the proposal.

At P.S. 109, the cost is at least $2,400 per student. Global Kids, the nonprofit that runs the program and provides its own full-time and part-time staff as well as all supplies for activities, will spend about $200,000 on it this year with the city’s grant and other money raised. Chase, the principal of P.S. 109, also had to find another $20,000 in the school’s budget to pay for aides to stay late to help supervise. “You get what you pay for,” Chase said. “Global Kids is expensive.”

On a recent snowy Tuesday afternoon, P.S. 109’s sixth graders were spread out around the three-story brick building, brightened with blue paint in the stairwells and doorways. Some were practicing capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, while others read and discussed a comic book about a girl who turned an abandoned lot into a garden. A dozen students in the computer lab practiced making their own video games, and a group of four worked with a literacy tutor discussing the motivations of an evil uncle in the book “Esperanza Rising.” One girl begged to be allowed to take the book home with her to continue reading.

Although the program is technically optional, administrators did not present it that way to parents and students, who were told the school day for sixth graders would run until 4:50 p.m. Five months into the program, all but three sixth graders attend regularly.

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Chase said his most struggling students wouldn’t come if they thought they had a choice. “The kids that need it aren’t going to want to be here,” he said. “We’ve got a segment of disengaged students [who], if given their druthers, they wouldn’t stay.”

Parent buy-in is also an issue. Many remain concerned about how their children are going to get home. Students now have to rely on public transportation or, at least in the winter, walk home in the dark past the empty lot and warehouses that surround the school.

“Safety was one of my main things,” said one mother, Luz Yega, who always has a family member pick up her son and accompany him for the 15-minute walk home. The additional hours have made for a long day, she added: “He leaves in the dark, and he comes home in the dark.”

Still, she gave the after-school program mostly positive reviews and said she would have her sixth grader stay even if he didn’t have to. She credited the program — particularly flag football on Fridays — as helping her shy son make friends at a new school.

Within the school, the biggest challenge was finding a way to maintain order in an environment slightly more relaxed than during the regular school day. Global Kids staff members had to find the right balance of academics, enrichment and physical activities. They also had to learn to be “more teacher-like,” Chase said. Although he stays until the last student leaves the school, the same is not true of most of his employees. If the program expands to seventh and eighth grade under de Blasio’s proposal, Chase has concerns about how to staff it. De Blasio said at the January press conference that — between teachers and those who work for community organizations — he is not concerned about finding quality people to work the after-school programs.

Chase would love to involve his teachers, but said that’s an even more expensive option than using Global Kids employees, adding that matching an average teacher salary would cost more than $40 an hour.

That’s what the extended day program at Harlem’s Thurgood Marshall Academy has done. All but one of the school’s teachers stay until 6 p.m., helping out with science, math and English classes. After 3:30 p.m., they are paid by a nonprofit that runs after school. The program –– which, according to the program director, costs about $120,000 to $130,000 from various grants and is open to all sixth, seventh and eighth graders –– also offers activities like debate, dance and French.

Now, in the program’s fourth year, Thurgood Marshall has developed a smooth transition between the regular school day and after-school enrichment opportunities. The head of the after-school program is in the school by 10 a.m. every day and shares an office with a middle-school administrator to ensure continuity between the two parts of the day.

Like P.S. 109’s, the program is not mandatory, but to opt out in the sixth grade, parents must sign a form indicating they are aware that their child is missing out on additional resources. The majority of seventh graders and many eighth graders voluntarily stay as well. Reading comprehension scores for sixth graders are up this year thanks to the after school’s focus on literacy, administrators say. Seventh and eighth graders have yet to be assessed, but teachers say that they are seeing stronger reading skills in the classroom.

To build a program with appeal, the principal, Sean Davenport, recommends taking small steps initially and surveying students to see what they want to do with their time. “Don’t be dejected if all your kids don’t want to stay [at first],” he said. “It’s a culture change. They’re your clients. You have to have a good product.”

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