Everybody loves them and they struggle to survive
After-school programs help kids thrive but money is tight
ATLANTA — In a kindergarten class, a game of hangman has hands waving in the air, and when Brianka gets her turn and guesses right, cheers erupt. Reveling in the praise, she hugs herself tight, eyes bright, lips grinning.
In the hallway, third-graders line up to go into the computer room, and in the nearby annex, eighth-graders sit around a long table, discussing "A Lesson Before Dying." Next door, high school students write reports on various aspects of the Harlem Renaissance.
It's a typical summer day at The Study Hall, a privately funded program offering summer and after-school activities to 120 K-12 students in Atlanta. This and similar organizations which offer a fun, safe, and disciplined learning community are widely recognized as lowering dropout rates, improving academic performance, and promoting good behavior.
But for all the recognition, successful after-school programs face daunting odds in their struggle to survive. They require money, leadership, and, above all, unswerving commitment from teachers, children, parents, and staff.
Stephanie Fitzpatrick, who joined The Study Hall in 1999, loves each of the roles she plays, whether it is office manager, kindergarten teacher, computer instructor, or disciplinarian. "The day-to-day," as she puts it, "is good. It's the overall that's tough."
During the school year, the day to day entails sending vans to pick up children from their schools and take them home in the evening. It means feeding them a healthy snack and a balanced meal at dinnertime, and, in between, making sure they get some time to unwind, play, and above all study. Teachers use volunteers to provide individual mentoring and tutoring as they make sure each child stays on track academically.
"Our challenge," says third-grade teacher Frenda Rodgers, "is to make personalized educational plans for each child" and to coordinate with the child's public school teacher as well as her parents. The goal is twofold: Ensure children digest the material taught at school, and supplement the public school curriculum.
The key to a program's success lies in great part with the director. "It used to be that the kids ran wild," says Katrina Favors, who works as assistant cook and was one of the first to use The Study Hall as a way to keep her children off the streets. "But Miss Holly got the kids settled down," she adds, referring to Cynthia Holly, who stepped in "temporarily" as director five and half years ago.
Widely credited with turning the program around, Ms. Holly involved parents, insisting they contribute four hours of volunteer time a month, and she added community service to the children's responsibilities. She instilled strict discipline no shouting or swearing or fighting. If parents do not care enough about the program to back the school up in these matters, the children are suspended and even dismissed.
She ensured that teachers and staff interacted with the children's primary public-school teachers as well as parents. And she demanded that the children always come first and be treated with respect. Too many programs fail to pay attention to kids when they do things right, she says. "Here we make a big deal about this and we give lots of hugs."
Achieving this, however, is not easy, and "the overall," as Ms. Fitzpatrick terms it, continually involves trade-offs. The Study Hall recruits young, motivated, and energetic teachers; the trade-off is a high turnover rate as teachers like Ms. Rodgers, a Spelman College graduate, tend to leave after two to three years.
"Security, benefits," she explains, "being able to eat every day and pay my bills. It's time to move on, also, and get a class of my own."
Holly herself is leaving, hoping to apply what she has learned here to affect more children. "To be truthful," she says, by way of explaining her success, "every waking moment my thoughts have been geared to Study Hall. Whatever you see inside and outside the office must help you generate ideas on how to make this business work because it is a business. Our product is our students."
One of the many ideas Holly worked on was establishing counseling for parents and children and, in the classroom, a wide network of volunteers, each of whom she trains to make sure they stress the good and criticize constructively. "If I'm expecting kids to behave a certain way," she explains, "we need a holistic approach."
Commitment, however, is not enough. The Study Hall costs money, and it continually scrambles to fund an annual budget that over the past three years averaged $657,000, or $5,000 to $6,000 per child.
"Usually, we get 80 percent from 25 to 30 foundations, 10 percent from corporations, and 10 percent from one-time special events," explains assistant development director Donava Griggs. She adds that in the wake of Sept. 11, some donors changed their focus. "That hurt," she says. Elsewhere, the fall of stock prices and economic malaise have reduced philanthropic contributions. Even when donations stay at the same level, those dollars earn less than they used to.
The drop in funding will probably force The Study Hall to cut out high school grades this fall, restrict the program primarily to children in the immediate neighborhood, replace the hot meal with sandwiches, and eliminate the evening drop-off. There is talk of converting into a charter school, most likely for 6th- to 8th-graders only.
This has many parents and children upset. "My 12-year-old had attitude," says Shavonda Lumpkin, who enrolled her daughter, Kimshara, and two younger children in the program a year ago.
"Kim would roll her eyes, suck her teeth," adds Ms. Lumpkin, "At Study Hall, they have gotten her to open up she used to not talk and her grades are better."
Since she lives too far away, however, Kimshara will not be able to continue in September.
Lumpkin is worried Kimshara will backslide, and Kimshara herself is sad. "I'll miss the people," she says, "and the fun activities."
But Kimshara is confident she knows how to stay out of harm's way and, she says, "my grades won't slip, because I'm smart."
The cutbacks can be viewed as yet one more trade-off after-school programs have to make in order to stay in operation and change young lives.
But for the staff, the question looms: At what point do the welfare and academic success of the children become part of the trade-off?