It was just over a year ago, at Keene area School District’s annual board retreat, and Deputy Superintendent Reuben Duncan was expecting the usual conversations about curriculum and finances. The teachers, he says, had something else in mind.
In five or ten years, Duncan says, elementary school students were coming in without the skills they used to have. “They were coming in without vocabulary, without being able to interact appropriately with other kids, with hygiene issues, not being able to use the bathroom,” he recalls. “And then, there’s the aggressive behaviors.”
Duncan isn’t a psychologist, or an economist, but he says, what’s changed is no mystery.
“I see a lot of families working multiple jobs, working longer hours.” At a time of stagnant wages, in a region where almost half of students are on free or reduced school lunch, Duncan says he knows financial stress affects children. Often, he says, “they are not getting the stimulation that children need from their parents or their environment.” It’s a problem facing parents and educators nationwide.
So Duncan – who usually spends his time focusing on what happens during school – started getting more serious about what happens after school.
Afterschool programs – especially at the Elementary level -- have been shown to close the achievement gap, improve social behaviors, and instill confidence in kids.
They also help reduce stress for parents. A few towns over from Keene in Troy, Kiera and Avah Castor are making puffy paint out of flour and water with a teacher and a gaggle of other kids in their Elementary School gym. Around 5pm, Chris Castor comes to pick up his daughters. Castor is a single dad who works for himself in tile and flooring. “It’s an amazing program,” he says. If it weren’t available, he says, he’d have half the work, and the kids would be “playing outside or watching TV.” Instead, Castor says, “they’re still learning,” with homework time, free play, structured crafts and science experiments.
Today, wealthy families spend almost $10,000 a year on enrichment for their kids, while poor families spend closer to $1000. For people like the Castors, access to afterschool programs can compensate for that disparity.
Many families, however, do not have access to the programs. Last year, the After School Alliance surveyed 200 NH families and found 17 percent already enrolled in afterschool – and an additional 36 percent would like to, but don’t have access.
Lynn Stanley is a social worker who runs the New Hampshire Afterschool Network. “We have huge gaps where either there are no afterschool programs available, or there are huge waiting lists, or parents can't access them due to finances,” she says. Transportation to non-school programs can be a barrier, too.
There is federal funding for after school programs. New Hampshire gets $5 million to fund programs in districts with 30% free or reduced lunch or higher. Last year, 14 eligible districts applied, and only six received funding.
Troy Elementary lost its funding a few years ago. Voters passed a warrant article, and now taxpayers fund the program themselves.
But at Wheelock Elementary School in Keene, no funding means no afterschool. And that’s a problem for Heather Cort – a home healthcare worker with a 4 year old daughter in preschool, an 11 year old stepdaughter, and a 7 year old son at Wheelock.
“I get out at three, and right when I get out I fly over here as fast as I can,” Cort says. She’s still wearing red Mickey-Mouse scrubs when she gets to Wheelock to pick up her son Christian. A home health care worker, Cort says if Wheelock had an affordable after school program, she could work two more hours every day -- which would mean not scraping the barrel after paying her bills every month.
For now, she says, she leaves work at 3, picks up Christian, then heads over to pick up her daughter, who stays at her husband’s best-friend’s mom’s house after preschool.
Keene does have three afterschool programs. There’s one at the YMCA, one at the city Recreation department, one at a different Elementary school. All three have waiting lists so long, most people don’t bother putting their name down. And even though they offer discounts to low-income families, Heather Cort believes at her income, “it’d be an even wash. I would be just working to pay them.”
Deputy Superintendent Reuben Duncan knows there are a lot of families like Cort’s at the Wheelock School: 54% of kids there receive free or reduced lunch. “It’s difficult, at this point, to subsidize those who really can’t afford to pay and still need that. So we feel that we’re missing a demographic.”
Perhaps the demographic that needs afterschool the most.
Duncan’s goal is to get before and afterschool funding at Wheelock into the annual school budget. He says he’ll be making the pitch next month.