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School Programs Supporters Rally

Tuesday October 14, 2003

Rosa Equihua knows how vital and precarious after-school programs are in Berkeley. As a working single mother who can’t be home when school lets out, she sends her two elementary school-aged daughters to the nonprofit Bahia Program. 

When last summer’s state budget stalemate froze program funds, the nonprofit needed emergency city loans to pay its bills. “That was a frightening time,” Equihua said. “This program is essential. It allows me to earn a living.” 

Equihua was one of hundreds of Berkeley parents who turned out last Thursday for Lights On After School, a national event aimed at drawing attention to the benefits of after-school programs so that governments—facing mounting deficits—think twice before slashing their funding. 

According to Alameda County, 2,022 out of 6,448 Berkeley school-aged children are enrolled in after school programs run by the school district, the city and various charitable groups. Berkeley places a higher percentage of students in such programs than most neighboring cities, but not enough, city and district officials say, to prevent waiting lists of at-need students at numerous after-school programs. 

Most Berkeley programs follow a set formula, providing youngsters an afternoon snack, tutoring them for the first hour after school and then providing recreational opportunities, such as dance classes, crafts and sports. Teachers include full-time district employees and part-time instructors teaching to groups of between 12 and 20 students. 

Program advocates have clamored for more funds to boost enrollment, pointing to studies that show students in such programs do better scholastically and stay out of trouble—although a recent study has called those findings into question. 

Berkeley has long championed funding after-school activities, and twice as many students proportionately are enrolled in such activities here as in neighboring Oakland. 

After-school opportunities for Berkeley kids flowered in 1998 when the school district utilized a new state grant to implement programs at six of the district’s elementary schools and all three junior high schools. 

Last year, despite a budget crunch, the city continued to earmark about $2 million for city programs and nonprofit after-school providers. 

State funding—which provides for most of the district’s programs—has also remained stable despite the budget deficit, but city and school officials say current funding levels are insufficient to meet the needs of all Berkeley students. 

A funding shortfall this summer forced the city to trim two weeks from its youth summer program. 

Kimberly Watson Fox, director of the district’s after-school programs which serve 1,500 students, said increased program costs, especially teacher medical benefits, have forced reductions in enrichment programs and tuition hikes for wealthier families. The district now charges parents according to a sliding scale fee from between $0 and $300 per month—still less than the county average maximum tuition of $480. 

Many of those participating in Lights On took solace that the event’s Honorary Chairperson Arnold Schwarzenegger will soon be calling the shots in California. 

“I think with Arnold now governor, program funding won’t get cut,” said Michael Funk, director of an after-school program in San Francisco. 

But Julie Sinai, aide to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, said she feared that should Schwarzenegger succeed in repealing the increase in vehicle license registration fees—which city officials estimated would add $6.2 million to the general fund—Berkeley could be forced to cut funds for after-school programs. “What the state does has a direct impact on our ability to fund community organizations,” she said. 

Last year Schwarzenegger championed Proposition 49, passed overwhelmingly by California voters, which could potentially raise state funding for after-school programs from the current $135 million to $550 million. However, no cities have yet received a cent because the law mandates that funds can only be released when there is a state budget surplus. 

Federal funding hasn’t kept pace with program demand either. 

As part of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy, funding for the federal block grant 21st Century After-school Learning Program—which funds some of the Berkeley school district’s programs—was to increase to $1.75 billion in 2004. Instead Bush asked Congress this year to cut funding for the program nearly in half from $1 billion to $600 million. Congressional opposition allowed funding to remain at $1 billion. 

While the funding battle continues, a debate is brewing over the effectiveness of the programs. A 2002 UC Irvine study found that California students enrolled in after-school programs performed better on the SAT-9 Reading and Math tests, had better attendance records, and reported more positive attitudes towards their school. 

However, a recent federal Department of Education report on the 21st Century program found that, nationwide, students enrolled in program-funded activities showed zero scholastic improvement and did not feel safer or more positively inclined towards their schools. The report’s authors blamed poor attendance for the results, noting that middle school students enrolled in the programs showed up, on average, only once a week. 

Equihua, though, said that Bahia, which offers bilingual education to West Berkeley’s Latino community, provides services no tests can measure. “This is a safe place for kids to go to feel accepted and get a sense of community,” she said. “My daughters love it here.”