GAITHERSBURG – In a small gymnasium at Montgomery Village Middle School in Gaithersburg, a group of children are playing a warm-up game before starting their dance class.
“I can’t do this with shoes on!” shouted 10-year-old Hannah Chacon, running around the gym floor and playing tag with other students.
School has let out for the day, but these children are taking part in the Excel Beyond the Bell after-school program. Chacon said these warm-up activities are her favorite part of the program.
Chacon’s mother, Anabelle Aviles, volunteers with Excel Beyond the Bell and said that after-school programs play an important role in her family.
“This is a great thing for them because they’re in a safe environment where they’re learning, having fun,” Aviles said.
A survey released last month found that 87 percent of Maryland’s parents are satisfied with their child’s after-school program. But it also found that demand for after-school activities far exceeds the supply.
“America After 3 PM,” by the Afterschool Alliance, interviewed 252 Maryland families, screening 1,036 children. According to the advocacy group, 16 percent of Maryland children were enrolled in an after-school program.
Thirty-six percent, or a projected 280,000 children in Maryland, would be enrolled in a program if one were available, according to the group’s survey.
Ellie Mitchell, director of the Maryland Out of School Time Network, believes that some after-school programs in the state have seen a “period of contraction” in the last decade, particularly those that serve low-income families.
“Programs that are free or low-cost are just not very accessible and we don’t have enough of them,” Mitchell said.
The Maryland Out of School Time Network advocates for legislation that would improve after-school programs, and provides administrative support for local care providers. The biggest challenge for these programs, said Mitchell, has been finding the money to sustain themselves.
“We used to have several funding streams that just don’t exist anymore,” Mitchell said.
Among these sources of revenue was the Maryland After-School Opportunity Fund, established by the General Assembly in 1999. It provided local jurisdictions with money to expand after-school programs and summer activities.
More than $9 million was set aside in the 2001 fiscal year, but funding diminished due to budget constraints. Since the 2005 fiscal year, no money has been added to the fund.
In 2012, administrative functions of the fund were transferred to the Governor’s Office for Children. Since then, the fund has been renamed the Maryland After-School and Summer Opportunity Fund, and an advisory board has convened to suggest strategies for improving access.
The advisory board released its recommendations last month, calling for consistent funding to meet the demand for programs. The recommendations also urged local organizations to help in the expansion of out-of-school programs, when funding is made available.
“(After-school programming) is an enterprise that’s driven at the community level,” said Anne Sheridan, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children, who now serves as the chair of the fund’s advisory board.
Another concern has been a lack of transportation.
Lynn Sobolov manages the Excel Beyond the Bell program, and found that providing buses allowed more children to take part in summer activities.
“If we weren’t able to provide transportation home, a number of the youth were not able to participate,” Sobolov said.
Excel Beyond the Bell is in its first year at Montgomery Village Middle School, where it serves just under 200 students. The program partners with local organizations to provide classes for students covering topics from art to audio editing.
Ellie Mitchell believes the ability to provide these hands-on activities is a major strength of after-school programs.
“What is great about the after-school space is that we’re not limited by time constraints or testing constraints of the school day,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell hopes that a boost in funding during the 2015 legislative session will allow programs like Excel Beyond the Bell to expand, but she isn’t taking anything for granted.
“We won’t be optimistic until we see it in the budget,” Mitchell said.