ANNAPOLIS – Maryland after-school programs are struggling to keep their doors open after two rounds of state budget cuts slashed funding for a grant program by 60 percent.
“The obvious impact of less programs is there are more kids at home after school without a safe, structured, fun environment,” said Roe Davis, executive director of the Baltimore County local management board. “We’re worried for these kids; parents are worried for these kids.”
The budget for the Maryland After School Opportunity Fund program, which distributes grants to local management boards in each of Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City for after-school programs, was reduced from $10 million to $5 million in January. When Gov. Robert Ehrlich made more budget cuts in July to help offset a $2 billion structural deficit, the fund lost another $1 million.
Five counties – Allegany, Caroline, Dorchester, Wicomico, and Worcester – received the minimum grant of $50,000.
With all counties seeing at least a 50 percent reduction, many have been forced to trim the number of programs offered.
Without quality after-school programs, experts say youths have more time to get into trouble. Teens are more likely to become involved in crime and substance abuse after school, particularly between 3 and 4 p.m., according to the National Juvenile Justice Center.
“It’s well documented that the hours after school are peak hours for crime,” said Judy Samelson, executive director for the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for quality, affordable after-school programs. “It only makes good sense that we get kids involved in productive behavior.”
To keep programs running, many jurisdictions have sought and found alternate funding, said Cynthia Prairie, communications director for the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.
Meagan Labriola, executive director of Community Bridges, a Silver Spring nonprofit that runs after-school programs, now spends 90 percent of her time looking for more funds. The program got about half its expected state funding, but won a grant from the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.
“We were absolutely determined that we were not going to let it affect programs,” she said.
Community Bridges runs Jump Start Girls! Adelante Ninas! in two elementary schools and two middle schools in Silver Spring. Girls explore different topics throughout the year, like the environment or health, and activities might focus on team building, conflict resolution or career exploration.
On the first day of the program at Oak View Elementary, fifth-grader Gisellie Zelaya was happy to be coming back for her second year – and looking forward to field trips that might include ice skating or a visit to a farm.
“If I wasn’t here, I would be bored at home,” she said.
Fellow Jump Start veteran Ariana Grado, another fifth-grade student, agreed, and said she was glad to receive help with her homework as well – 30 minutes a day is devoted to homework.
Some counties were luckier than others in seeking funds.
Frederick County was able to keep all six of its programs – not because the $260,000 it lost wasn’t significant, but because the YMCA and the county commissioners both gave $130,000 to raise the total.
The reduction “would have obliterated us,” said Cindie Beach, Frederick County after-school evaluation specialist. “It’s just challenging to keep funding going.”
Some jurisdictions have been forced to limit or run fewer programs.
Prince George’s County will serve nearly 600 fewer participants with its programs, but hopes to fund nine programs, down from the usual 20.
In Charles County, the grant dropped from $194,000, which fully funded programs at three middle schools, to $75,000, which will fund two programs this year.
“I mean, $75,000, it’s not really enough to run two programs . . . It’s a stretch,” said Sheldon Spivey, juvenile services planning specialist for the Charles County local management board. He said the two remaining programs will be run for 15 weeks instead of 20, and the quality of the programs could suffer in terms of supplies, activities, and field trips.
Many counties trimmed the length of their programs, like Cecil and Montgomery counties, which both eliminated at least one day from their weekly schedules.
Dorchester and Washington counties shortened program calendars to run October through March.
Baltimore City lost eight programs and will serve almost 300 fewer youths, after receiving $630,000 instead of $1.4 million.
“We were targeting the high-risk areas in the city,” said Vanessa Ringgold, deputy director of the Family League of Baltimore City. “This loss of funding could be a tremendous loss to those neighborhoods.”