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Low-income families struggle to pay after school fees

As the Rev. Walter Taylor explored issues facing at-risk youths in Columbus, he noticed a disturbing reality in low-income areas.

Many of the neighborhoods lacked affordable after-school and summer programs where children could thrive in a stimulating environment.

So this summer, Taylor and his wife started a summer camp for low-income children at his tax office on South Lumpkin Road. They also organized a community forum where residents asked elected officials to make more after-school programs available.

“When you’re looking at single-family homes, and our parents who are working one job, it’s sometimes hard to facilitate keeping children in after-school care,” said Taylor, pastor of the Life Church of Columbus, located at 1326 10th Ave. “The lowest rate for one child in after-school care in the Muscogee County School District is $20 a week.

“And so, if you’re talking about a parent that has two or three children in after-school care, that’s possibly $60 a week, ultimately putting them at almost over $200 a month,” he said. “You take a single mother who is only bringing home maybe $1,600 to $1,800 a month, it’s hard for her to be able to keep her child in an after-school program.”

Taylor isn’t the only one concerned about the lack of affordable after-school programs in low-income neighborhoods. The Enrichment Services Program recently conducted a community assessment and found a significant need for such programs in Muscogee and other surrounding counties.

“Staff indicated that the most visible problem for at-risk youth is a lack of after-school programs,” the report read. “Next in importance was the low number of programs focused on developing leadership skills. Respondents indicated a general lack of programs focused on youth from poor families.”

The problem mirrors what appears to be a national problem. The Afterschool Alliance, a national organization that advocates for children in need of after-care programs, recently released a document called the “America After 3PM Special Report: Afterschool in Communities of Concentrated Poverty.” The study found that 24 percent of children living in low-income neighborhoods participate in after-school programs, compared to 18 percent of children overall in the United States. Yet, the supply falls far short of the demand.

“The need for after-school and summer learning programs is especially urgent for children growing up in communities of concentrated poverty who can benefit academically, socially, emotionally and physically from the services and activities these programs provide,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, in a statement issued by the organization. “Quality after-school programs keep students safe, inspire them to learn, and help working families, and they can improve prospects for children and youth growing up in impoverished communities.

“If we are serious about providing equal opportunity and building a workforce that can compete in a 21st century global economy, we must ensure that our most vulnerable children do not miss out on the support and opportunities after-school programs provide,” she said.

Taylor said he believes the Muscogee County School District should do more to provide after-school programs for at-risk children.

“One of the requests that we’ve been making is, ‘Why can’t there be some opportunities given where there are grants made available for children who can’t afford after-school?’” he asked. “... The mere fact that the school is already open, the staff is already in place, why can’t there be just a percentage that the school system would allow to come in for free into the after-school program?”

City, school programs

In the Muscogee County School District, the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department, not the school district, runs most of the school-based before- and after-school programs. But that’s something the city was hoping to change earlier this year.

In February, City Manager Isaiah Hugley submitted a proposal to Columbus Council recommending that the district take over the program. The idea was presented among possible options for funding the city’s aquatic center. Hugley said the city had already transferred a few school-based programs to the district in recent years, and the recommendation seemed logical.

“Because we are not breaking even in the before- and after-school program, we’re operating at a deficit of roughly $300,000,” Hugley said during a recent Ledger-Enquirer interview. “That’s $300,000 that we were losing with the program — my recommendation was to move it to help fund the aquatic center.”

Columbus Council rejected the proposal and made a modest increase in weekly fees for children in the program to help the city move toward a break-even point, said Hugley. But he still believes the school district is better equipped to handle before- and after-school programs.

“We wanted them transferred from the city to what I think is the proper setting, and that would be the school district, because the students go to school at these elementary and middle schools all day, and then they simply walk down the hall to the cafeteria or the gymnasium after school,” he said. “The same people, for the most part, who are teaching them, are the people employed in the after-school program.

“... I just felt that the city is not the right agency to operate these after-school programs because it’s about helping the student with his or her homework between the time that they’re out of school and the time that the parent comes to pick them up,” he continued. “In my mind, after-school programs are not to be playtime. It’s meant to be a time that the student is provided some support for homework and to get those things done with tutorial time.”

Holli Browder, the city’s parks and rec director, said the city serves about 1,100 children in about 27 schools through the before- and after-school program. The children participate in enrichment activities geared toward math, reading, science and social study skills, she said. They also receive homework assistance, snacks and recreational time for board games, playtime, arts and crafts, drama, music and other activities. Fees can range from $21 to $56 per week for each child depending on financial need and the number of children in the family, according to information on the city website.

Valerie Fuller, director of communications for the Muscogee County School District, said there are currently four after-school programs run by the district at Allen, Blanchard, Britt David and Hanaan elementary schools, which are run by the site supervisors as designated by the principal at a cost. There are no immediate district-initiated plans for after-school programs, she said.

‘We can’t do it for free’

Some nonprofits, such as the Columbus Community Center, Girls Inc. of Columbus and the Boys and Girls Club of Columbus, also run after-school programs. However, many are struggling to keep services affordable for parents.

Toya Winder is the new executive director of the Columbus Community Center, located at 3952 Steam Mill Road. She said the program was started 70 years ago by three black educators who saw a need for cultural enrichment activities for black children. It’s now located in the former John Amos Aflac house, serving about 83 elementary students from eight Title I schools in the southeast Columbus area. There’s a waiting list with about 30 families.

Winder said the program has been free for many years, with the center picking up children from school, serving a light snack and providing homework assistance, with an emphasis on positive behavior. But the Columbus Community Center board of directors voted last week to begin charging parents $25 a week per child. The center also has had to lay off staff in recent months, she said.

Winder said most of the center’s funding comes from renting the facility and United Way donations, but it’s not enough to cover the program and pay for upgrades needed on the property. She said the organization plans to launch a fundraising campaign for a new playground. Meanwhile, she sees the need for more services in the community.

“What you have to realize is how many parents have to work,” she said. “You have two-income households, mother and father working. You have single parents. ... Where do their children go when they get out of school?”

Leann Malone recently replaced Dorothy Hyatt as executive director of Girls Inc. of Columbus. She said many families are struggling financially, and affordable aftercare is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed.

Malone said membership fees are $20 for the school year at Girls Inc., but in January the organization added a monthly activity fee for participation in the program. The fee is $40 a month for girls in elementary school for the first child and there’s a reduced rate for second and subsequent family members. For middle and high school girls, it’s $20 a month.

This year, Girls Inc. also raised its summer fees from $175 to $200 for 11 weeks of camp, full days, five days a week, Malone said. She said the changes were made before she joined the organization, but it’s her understanding that the fees were raised due to budgetary concerns.

Malone said about 30 percent of the organization’s funding comes from United Way, 15 percent from fees and the rest from donations and special events. She said Girls Inc. has been blessed with loyal supporters, and the organization also is pursuing grants and other funding sources.

“The part that we continue to work on is not having to continue to raise those fees,” she said. “And for families that have significant financial issues, whether it’s temporary or ongoing, we work with those families and make it so they don’t even have to pay the full fee each month.

“We’re doing everything to make sure that girls have an opportunity to attend Girls Inc.,” she added. “But, yes, it’s absolutely fair to say, ‘We can’t do it for free,’ and there is a limit to how many girls we can serve when there is no additional support to provide quality programs with trained professional staff. And we have to provide our staff with a living wage, otherwise it’s just a babysitting service, and that’s not what we’re about.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter