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NEW YORK CITY — Thousands of kids stream into Fort Greene Park each afternoon as local middle and high schools let out, but Daquan McKethan is no longer among them.

On a recent Wednesday, the seventh-grader was two blocks away ensconced in a basketball scrimmage at his school, where he now stays until 6 p.m. nightly. Last fall, he was in that park, across from a public housing project in northwest Brooklyn, N.Y., almost every day.

“Sometimes you don’t have a good time in the park,” the slight 12-year-old said, haltingly. “Sometimes people push people, and you get hurt and you get upset. Here if someone gets hurt, someone sees it and they can help.”

Officials at Daquan’s school say the impact of the after-school program is not limited to the afternoon.

“It’s totally different this year,” said Paula Lettiere, principal of Fort Greene Preparatory Academy, a middle school with about 250 students. “There would be incidents, things that would happen in the park, and then they would go up on Facebook. We would have to deal with it during the day, and it would take away from learning. That no longer happens.”

NYC after-school programs
University Settlement’s Brooklyn after-school coordinator, Tameeka Ford Norville, and Fort Greene Preparatory Academy Principal Paula Letierre have worked closely together to craft an after-school program with high attendance. (Photo: Meredith Kolodner)

Fort Greene Prep is part of New York City’s unprecedented expansion of free after-school programs for middle school students. The city doubled the number of middle schools providing after-school programs this year, serving an additional 31,000 children — or more than 75,000 of the roughly 225,000 students in its public middle schools.

The programs, run under contracts with community organizations, are providing thousands of kids with a safe and engaging place to go for three hours after school every day, but some advocates question whether their academics are robust enough. Program operators must offer at least two hours a week of literacy or science activities like creative writing or robotics, plus daily homework help. The bulk of the offerings, however, are sports, leadership development, dance, music and art.

The after-school expansion was part of a high-profile campaign promise by Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with universal pre-kindergarten. While Governor Andrew Cuomo thwarted the mayor’s effort to provide a stable funding stream with a tax on the super-wealthy, political maneuvering did result in a two-year state budget allocation close to the mayor’s original request

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The programs have the potential to fill a gaping need. Last spring, just 28 percent of New York City elementary and middle school kids were enrolled in a comprehensive after-school program, but 67 percent of parents said they would enroll their kids if they could, according to a recent report by the advocacy group Afterschool Alliance. Close to one in five New York City children were without any adult presence between 3 and 6 p.m.

Most educators are hopeful about the massive expansion, which seeks to provide a safe and engaging place for thousands of children whose families couldn’t otherwise afford the enrichment. On average, more than 80 percent of students at participating schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and enrollment spiked beyond the original target, producing wait lists in some places.

NYC after-school programs
The after-school program at East Fordham Academy in the Bronx is filled to capacity and has children on a waiting list. (Photo: Meredith Kolodner)

Still, some educators and advocates worry that the light-speed rollout has resulted in a missed opportunity to improve academic achievement for students who are struggling and at risk of dropping out of school altogether.

At issue is the role of after-school programming itself. Should it simply provide the kind of enrichment that middle-class families regularly give their children, plus some homework help? Or should it be akin to an extended school day, allowing more time and creative ways to meet learning goals for children who are already years behind?

Advocates of the latter point out that middle school is a time when at-risk students often flounder and fall behind academically, sometimes for good. One study shows that a sixth-grader in a high-poverty school who fails English or math has a 75 percent chance of dropping out of high school. About three-quarters of the sixth-graders at the schools with the new after-school programs are not reading at grade level, and about 70 percent failed the state math tests last year.

“After-school is really one of the equalizing opportunities, and what’s going on in New York will benefit a lot of children,” said Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning. “But I worry that we’re not going to see the kind of educational gains that we need, particularly in light of the skills we know students need to be prepared for this complex economy.”

City officials say after-school programs should enhance students’ love of learning, perhaps helping them to develop a passion in sports or the arts that motivates them during the regular school day. They push back against judging the programs by academic measures.

“It’s very important to be clear what after-school is and isn’t,” said Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, who has overseen the expansion. “It’s not designed to be three hours of academic instruction. We should never look to after-school to do what a school isn’t able to do.”

Buery would like to see cohesion with the regular school day, but “we shouldn’t get confused that if after-school doesn’t demonstrably move a school towards improved test scores, it hasn’t done its job,” he said.

Community organizations — 110 in all — are receiving funding to run the new programs. They receive $3,000 per child, a big bump from previous programs, some of which topped out at $1,600, program directors said. That has allowed them to expand hours and hire some certified teachers although there are no education requirements for the staff and the only requirement for program directors is that they have a college degree.

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The city is now figuring out a process to evaluate program quality and impact, and Buery cautions those who want to make the evaluations too academically focused.

“I don’t ask my kid’s piano teacher to improve their test scores. All of sudden when it’s District 19 and District 23, why are we asking them to do that, too?” he said, referring to two high-poverty Brooklyn school districts. “Working-class and poor kids need art and music, too. Kids in District 23 shouldn’t have to choose between learning how to read and developing as a young person, and we shouldn’t make them choose. It’s a false choice. Because we failed you in school all day, you can’t have these programs to develop your soul?”

“Working-class and poor kids … shouldn’t have to choose between learning how to read and developing as a young person.” New York City Deputy Mayor Richard Buery

The “missed opportunity” question was debated at a city middle school task force meeting in early November, those in attendance said. Advocates voiced concerns about uneven program quality and missed rare chances to improve academic performance. Others argued that ensuring high attendance is the primary goal initially, and some programs are still struggling with consistency. The city declined to release data on attendance, but program directors said they knew of several schools where attendance was spotty.

Attendance has not been a problem at Fort Greene Prep, where the program is run by University Settlement: The school enrolled 100 students for 90 slots and daily has 95 students, many considered at risk, Principal Letierre said. Most students are poor, and last year 8 percent passed the state math exams and 15 percent passed in English. Like most educators, Letierre sees the social and emotional work of the after-school program as inseparable from the academics.

“We have kids who would show up at the PTA meetings without their parents, just to get a snack,” said the longtime educator, who made sure that the program provided supper. “We have kids whose parents work in the evening, so they are literally eating every single meal with us. Some of them are alone from dismissal until 10 at night.”

It is too early to measure the success of the program at Fort Greene Prep, but attendance is up and behavior problems during the regular school day are down. Homework completion, which hovered at 50 percent last year, is close to 100 percent this year for children who stay after school.

“If kids aren’t safe after school and can’t rest their minds and feel at their core that they belong, there is no way that they will be able to learn during the day program,” Letierre said.

RELATED: What works –– and doesn’t –– in a longer school day

In the Bronx, East Fordham Academy for the Arts is another striving middle school in a tough neighborhood that added an after-school program this year. The program there, run by Good Shepherd Services, was allotted 111 slots and has overenrolled to 138, with an additional 15 children on the waiting list.

“I was told there are kids who are major problems. These kids, you’re going to have big problems with them, I was warned,” said program director Alexa Bonilla. “But I haven’t seen that. With me, here, they are great kids. I have no problems. Some of them are forgotten, given up on, and then they believe that about themselves.”

Consistent attendance jumped after the first three weeks when the program was approved to serve supper. “That was a really big deal,” said Bonilla, a former middle school teacher. “A lot of them don’t have food at home.” About 98 percent of East Fordham Academy students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and a quarter are English language learners. Last year, 5 percent of the children passed the state English exam, and 6 percent passed in math.

Bonilla grew up in the neighborhood, where few make it to college, and graduated from Cornell University. She bristles at the idea that the program isn’t providing sufficient academic support. “With these kids, academia has a bad reputation,” she said. “I can tell you the biggest thing urban youth are missing is critical thinking skills. We’re not just wasting time with them. They’re learning, but they don’t know it.”

Students in the program were attentive and engaged on a Thursday fall afternoon.

Seventh-grader Nicole Thomas, 11, who was learning about the history of hip hop before trying out a new set of moves, said if she weren’t there, “I would be stuck at home trying to do my homework getting yelled at by my mom to do the dishes and take care of my [2-year-old] sister.”

Yull Diaz, also 11 and in seventh grade, said he likes that the environment is more personal than during the academic day. “Less people are here so I learn more,” said Yull, who was writing an autobiography. “My regular class is 30 kids and all the kids are calling out and stuff.” He also appreciates the homework help. “My mom is at home, but she doesn’t speak a lot of English,” he said.

Safety is a big issue in the neighborhood. Bonilla runs a tight dismissal, careful to check several court orders of protection to make sure the wrong parent isn’t trying to pick up a child. On Halloween the after-school program was closed in part because the holiday is a big gang initiation day in the neighborhood when new recruits must cut or rob someone to become full members.

Many parents say they want both for their children: the opportunities to succeed academically, and develop themselves in a safe environment.

“I would not want him to fall back academically,” said Lisa Duprey Simon, a single mom who lives with her two children in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and works as a hair stylist until 8 p.m. most days. She transferred her son Pryor, 11, to Middle School 61 in nearby Crown Heights when she learned it would have a free after-school program.

“Without this he would pretty much be on his own,” said Simon, who last year would sometimes bring Pryor to work with her. “The days he would be alone, those are the days you worry a little more. To know that he’s safe, that he’s engaged in something constructive, and to know I could call and he will be there, as a parent, it’s really something that gives you peace of mind.”

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