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Pandemic aid for schools is ending soon. Many after-school programs may go with it

LA Johnson

Fifth-grader Andreana Campbell and third-grader Kewon Wells are tending to a garden box after school at Eugene Field Elementary School in Tulsa, Okla.

“I want to try this kale,” Kewon says, pointing to one of their crops. He picks some off the plant and pops it in his mouth.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to take the kale off, and you’re supposed to wash it!” Andreana tells him with a giggle.

At this after-school program, each participant gets a garden box to plan, decorate, plant and harvest from throughout the school year.

It’s one of countless after-school programs across the country that rely on federal pandemic-era relief dollars known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funds. But those federal dollars are starting to expire this fall, leaving the future of many after-school programs – including the one at Eugene Field – up in the air.

“The unfortunate reality is that some of those programs are going to close,” says Erik Peterson, senior vice president for policy at the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance.

His organization analyzed 6,300 school districts across all states and the District of Columbia, and found that those districts spent at least $8.1 billion in ESSER funds on after-school and summer programs. As a result, an estimated 4 million more students were able to access these programs.

Peterson says schools will need to find diverse funding streams to sustain the after-school programming boom that temporary federal funds made possible.

“There’s not going to be one funding stream that just comes in and takes over. It’s going to be a patchwork,” he explains.

Even if schools do pull that off, he says “it’s not going to be enough to match” what the federal government was providing.

Many of Tulsa’s afterschool programs are supported by an organization called The Opp. Leaders there say ESSER funds allowed The Opp to expand its program offerings from seven school sites to 63. It supports 450 programs across those schools. But once the ESSER funds are gone, that will shrink to just 75 programs, unless they can find funding on their own.

The return on investment for after-school programs

Peterson says quality after-school programs come with all kinds of benefits. Not only do they help foster relationships with trusted adults, but they also help students develop important skills.

“Communication skills — both written and oral — learning to problem solve, learning to resolve conflicts with peers and with others,” Peterson explains. “And really, all those skills that employers look for in terms of so-called ‘21st-century skills’ or workforce skills, but also really the skills just anyone needs to be successful — both in school, but really, in life.”

A growing body of research shows students who participate in out-of school activities, including after-school programs, are more likely to have higher vocabulary scores, better reading comprehension, better math achievement and better social confidence.

These programs also provide a safe place for students to keep learning after the school day ends.

“I had an opportunity to chat with a fourth-grade student as she was waiting for her chess club to begin,” says Lauren Sivak, executive director at The Opp. “And she said to me, ‘If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be home alone.’ And I have not forgotten that statement since those words left her mouth. And that is a big concern to me.”

According to The Opp’s data, students who participated in The Opp’s after-school programs were 43% less likely to be chronically absent — that’s when students miss at least 10% of school days in a school year.

Sivak says these programs also provide a place where students can expand their interests and work on life skills without worrying about grades or other classroom pressures.

When after-school funding competes with in-school needs

Caroline Crouch, of Tulsa Public Schools, says prioritizing state dollars for after-school opportunities – over in-school ones – can be a tough sell. And in fact, in Oklahoma, lawmakers are focusing their funding priorities on teacher recruitment and retention, not filling the gaps for after-school programs once the ESSER money expires.

Crouch previously oversaw after-school programs for the district, and she currently works in the communications office. She says policymakers and donors need to know about the return on investment after-school programming provides.

“It feels to a lot of people like it’s soft and fuzzy, right? You know, this ain’t no reading, writing and arithmetic,” Crouch says.

But the district has seen the difference these programs can make for Tulsa students: “A few years ago, we had the first- or second-year [after-school] debate club at Walt Whitman Elementary. And every single student who was in their debate club did better on their English language [and] math assessments than they had before.”

Sivak, of The Opp, says she doesn’t think policymakers in Oklahoma will step in with funding unless they feel a sense of urgency from their communities — and that probably won’t happen until the programs go away.

“I don’t know if the appetite for sustainable funding will be there until we see what is lost.”

After-school lessons in pesto

At Eugene Field Elementary, the after-school gardeners aren’t thinking about funding; they’re more focused on making a harvested carrot-top pesto spread.

Students gather around a table to chop carrot greens, spinach, basil and kale. They add oil, lemon juice and garlic into a food processor, and garden educator Mary Smith talks through potential flavor profiles as she folds in the pesto with whipped butter.

The students spread the pesto over slices of bread and take a bite. Many go back for seconds, and some for thirds.

Afterward, Smith gathers the students on the carpeted floor and asks what they appreciated that day. Surrounded by gardening calendars, an enormous indoor grow tower, photos of the students in the garden and cooking supplies, the kids say they appreciate the teachers at this after-school program, the carrot-top pesto and getting to do a garden scavenger hunt earlier that afternoon.

Then they put their hands together and count off: “Three, two, one — pesto rocks!”

Beth Wallis covers education for StateImpact Oklahoma.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Beth Wallis
[Copyright 2024 KOSU]