Great Barrington — Tucked away on page 17 of the 2018 budget proposed by the Trump administration on March 16, subtitled, “A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” there is a four-line bombshell. It calls for the elimination of $1.2 billion for the only federally funded before and afterschool program serving this country’s 50 million public school students.
The 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program (21st CCLC) was born as part of the No Child Left Behind legislation passed under President George W. Bush in 2001, with the aim of reducing the achievement gap between white, wealthier kids and low-income and minority kids. Apart from its academic and other enrichment content, it enables American parents, in a country where the school day generally runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., to work a full day.
Moms and/or dads who have to work from 8 to 4 or 9 to 5 can rest assured, under the 21st CCLC, that their children are well-cared for during those extra hours in a structured, supervised setting where they are provided with enrichment and educational activities, snacks, and free transportation home. Our local 21st CCLC program is called Project Connection, and it operates at both Muddy Brook Elementary and Monument Valley Middle Schools. With its supervised activities, sliding scale fee, emphasis on boosting academic achievement and social emotional skills, Project Connection has been one step toward leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students in South Berkshire County.
The actual wording of the cut is as follows. The 2018 budget:
“Eliminates the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which supports before and after-school programs as well as summer programs, resulting in savings of $1.2 billion from the 2017 annualized CR level. The programs [sic] lacks strong evidence of meeting its objectives, such as improving student achievement.”
The president promised, in his recent address to Congress, that “the forgotten people will be forgotten no longer” and “to work with members of both parties to make child care accessible and affordable.” This cut pulls affordable lifeline away from 1.6 million American families, many of whom are the ones struggling hardest to make a living.
Over the past seven years Project Connection has partnered with and supported the work of the following nonprofit organizations and human service agencies, among others: Berkshire South Regional Community Center, Flying Cloud Institute, Railroad Street Youth Project, Flying Deer Nature Center, IS 183 Art School, Multicultural BRIDGE, Berkshire Botanical Garden, Berkshire Theatre Group, Berkshire Museum, The Berkshire Co-op, The Nutrition Center, and Greenagers. [I helped to write the original federal grant with BHRSD staff and administration in 2010.]
As the poverty rate in our region continues to climb — in 2006, 22 percent of children in BHRSD were eligible for free or reduced lunches, per federal poverty guidelines; this year the rate is 33 percent — Project Connection has met a pressing, unmet need in the community. The grant was originally written to serve 120 students total. When enrollment opened, 190 signed up at Muddy Brook Elementary School, 65 percent of them high needs, and 40 signed up at Monument Valley Middle School, 69 percent of them high needs. The program was so popular, in fact, that Project Connection applied for and received additional funding from the Berkshire United Way to allow for the unforeseen expansion. The United Way continues to support Project Connection, thanks to its evidence of positive outcomes.
Tom Kelly, Program Director for Project Connection, says that every program is designed to improve verbal and written communication, challenging students to be inquisitive. “If you look at achievement gaps in math and reading, and the students that this program serves, the gaps are narrowing.”
Project Connection has perhaps made its greatest impact, in terms of academic and workforce benefits, in the summer. “Summer slide” is the term for the learning loss that disadvantaged children suffer, compared to their wealthier counterparts, during the long summer break. For parents who cannot afford thousands of dollars for camps, one-on-one tutoring, music, art, drama classes or any other enrichment that wealthier families take for granted as an integral part of their children’s lives —Project Connection’s full-day summer camp sessions have been invaluable.
On top of this, our students have a summer story to tell now, when teachers ask them to write the classic “What I did this summer” essay. When their classmates share, ‘I went to the Grand Canyon” and “I hiked in Maine,” they can proudly say, “ I went to Hancock Shaker Village. I learned how to build a fire. I built a chicken coop for a family who now has fresh eggs every day.’ This promotes a powerful sense of ‘I belong,’ especially at the middle school level.”
Muddy Brook principal Mary Berle says of Project Connection, “Our data show that many of our students participating have grown as much in a summer as they do in a year. It’s extraordinary, very powerful.
“Our students are engaged and thriving during the school day because of the inspiration they are feeling and the connections they are making. We have students doing woodworking in Project Connection, they do culinary arts, learn how to measure, are motivated to read recipes, they’re singing and dancing and exposed to literature and music. They look forward to it all day long. It is making their school day work more relevant. It’s a powerful force in our school and community.”
BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon called Project Connection “really impactful.” And went on, “It sets kids up for success through creative and engaging learning opportunities. Our staff experiment and refine how they teach in the regular day. Community partnerships support all the learning. Having this level of support outside our regular budget gives us flexibility.”
In a statement published March 16th, Jodi Grant, Executive Director of the national advocacy organization the Afterschool Alliance, wrote:
“This proposal would devastate working families. It is painfully short-sighted and makes a mockery of the President’s promise to make our country safer and to support inner cities and rural communities alike…..Afterschool programs make it possible for many parents to work; losing their afterschool programs would jeopardize their ability to hold onto their jobs.”
Just two weeks ago, on March 1st, a national study of afterschool program focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, released its findings. Kids in the study did a five-week STEM curriculum in an afterschool program. Seventy-seven percent of the students participating reported a positive change in interest in science, 71 percent reported an increase in their own sense of being a “science person,” more than 81 percent reported increased positive gain in science career knowledge (meaning they learned there are more STEM related jobs than astronaut), and over 70 percent reported an increase in critical thinking and perseverance.
Ardith Wieworka, CEO of the Massachusetts Afterschool Partnership, says of the likelihood of this proposed elimination passing through Congress, “In a normal world, we’d say this is dead on arrival….I will say, there is very strong support for 21st CCLC programs from major advocacy groups, kids’ groups. Our congressional delegation supports the program, but it still matters for people to contact them. Everybody in there has a couple of Republican friends, and if they get enough feedback from constituents, their priorities are going to be based on what they hear. If we put out an alert for everyone to call their reps and senators, people will do it, and it will matter.”
James Driscoll is a 2nd grader at Muddy Brook Elementary School, and has been participating in Project Connection since he was in kindergarten. His mother, Livia Driscoll, says of the program, “He loves it. He was so upset when it was the last day of the session! As a working parent it’s so good to know that we have time until 5 to do what we have to do. But it’s not just about that; it’s about the help that he gets there. James has a speech delay, and they are helping him with reading and math. It helps us in that he’s busy, and active. I hope they can keep the program; we really need it!”