Rural Afterschool Programs: Is Help on the Way?
By Erik Peterson
Back to school season is just around the corner, and with it the worry of the afterschool hours. In communities nationwide, 14.3 million children head out the school door each afternoon, to spend the afterschool hours alone and unsupervised. The effect? Parents worry, and with good reason – juvenile crime soars from 3 to 6 p.m. – and kids miss out on valuable learning opportunities. Afterschool programs offer a solution, keeping kids safe, inspiring them to learn, and helping working families. As the research shows, children who go to afterschool programs attend school more often, do better in school and achieve higher levels of education.
In rural communities, a lack of local resources makes it particularly challenging for afterschool programs to get started and remain open. Clinton County, Kentucky, is one such example: the county has little in the way of infrastructure – few local businesses, not enough child care centers, and long distances between home and school. Almost half of children live below the poverty line. So, when a new federal afterschool grant competition was announced, the county responded. That was 1995. In the words of a local youth worker, “The 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) grant is the best thing that could have happened to our town.” The program flourished, tackling the tough job of parental involvement and serving 400 of 475 students at one of its middle schools.
Today, Clinton County’s afterschool programs are struggling. Their federal 21st CCLC grant has shrunk significantly, and state funding has dropped by nearly 70 percent. Clinton County’s afterschool story is all too familiar across our nation’s communities, and rural programs are especially hard hit. On top of state and local budget cuts, rural communities face high transportation costs, a lack of private partners, competition for limited community facilities, a limited tax base and challenges recruiting and retaining skilled staff.
A new piece of legislation, the Investment in Rural Afterschool Programs Act (S. 1281/HR 3078), could provide the help rural afterschool programs need. Introduced by Representatives Hare (D-IL) and Luetkemeyer (R-MO) in the House and Senators Lincoln (D-AR), Begich (D-AK) and Stabenow (D-MI) in the Senate, the bill would create a new grant program for rural afterschool programs. Funds can support transportation, professional development and training; access, to technology, recruitment and retention of staff, and planning grants. Building on what we’ve learned about the best afterschool programs, applicants are encouraged to build partnerships with public and private entities. Because eating well is critical to students’ ability to learn, the bill also requires programs to provide a snack or meal that meets nutrition standards set by the USDA.
We at the Afterschool Alliance are thankful that more than 70 local, state and national organizations have endorsed the legislation – from the American Association of School Administrators and RuralVotes to the National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition and Zhang Sah Martial Arts in Pennsylvania. Advocates for rural communities can contact their member of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor the bills as well. With broad organizational support and champions in Congress like Senator Lincoln and Representatives Hare and Luetkemeyer, there is hope for Clinton County’s afterschool program and the thousands like it.