Schools lose $$

By Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat May 03, 2013 11:30 am

Sonora Elementary School first-graders (from left) Sophia Powell and Alisia Enriquez-Ferreria help Megan Scott with a word search. Amy Alonzo Rozak / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
Tuolumne and Calaveras county schools lost out this spring on more than $1 million in funding for after-school programs.

Seven local school districts sought grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which pays for free afternoon activities and academic support.

The schools learned last week that the federal funds, administered by the Stanislaus County Office of Education, were not being renewed for the region that includes Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

Columbia, Curtis Creek, Sonora and Soulsbyville elementary schools each applied for $150,000. Summerville Elementary School asked for $43,200, and Jamestown requested $120,150. Calaveras Unified School District sought $234,011.

The money was in high demand. California schools had requested $141 million, said Stanislaus County Office of Education spokeswoman Judy Leitz. Only $19 million was available for the entire state.

Fee-based afternoon programs, like Sonora Elementary’s “P.M. Club,” are not affected by the denial — though the P.M. Club now has more students waiting to enroll. 

Leitz said she didn’t know why local school districts’ applications were shot down. The U.S. Department of Education hasn’t explained it. 

But for many Mother Lode families, the impact of the loss is clear. 

“I know I’m very unsure of what I’m going to do for after-school childcare,” said Michelle Vidaurri, whose 10-year-old daughter, Grace, is in Sonora Elementary’s 21st Century Learning Center program.

“It was just nice to have that service for working and middle-income families,” Vidaurri said. “The enrichment they provided there was priceless.”

Four Tuolumne County districts, along with Calaveras Unified School District, have participated in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative since the 2009-10 school year. Curtis Creek Elementary and Soulsbyville Elementary wanted to join next year. 

Sonora Elementary’s program was popular, serving 124 students in kindergarten through eighth grade — almost 20 percent of the school’s enrollment.

Students stay there from the end of the school day through 6 p.m. They get homework help for part of the afternoon, which helps boost their performance in class. 

Their other activities have ranged from ukelele and ceramics lessons to writing valentines for support staffers on campus.

Jamestown Elementary after-school students started their own earring-making business with local artist Dianne Stearns. 

“If you add up going to the after-school program every day, that’s going to school for an extra two months,” said Mark Dyken, Jamestown’s after-school program coordinator. “That adds up a lot…it’s an absolute no-brainer.”

Grace Vidaurri is on a waiting list for Sonora Elementary’s P.M. Club, but many families can’t afford its cost of up to $14 a day per child and are lamenting the free version’s loss.

“I just feel really bad for our families and for our staff,” said Cindy Jensen, the coordinator for Sonora Elementary’s free program. “It’s disappointing.”

Jensen and several other after-school staffers have been laid off. They sent home notice to families that the program will shut down on the last day of school. 

Some school districts with higher numbers of students getting free and reduced-price school meals, including Jamestown and Columbia elementary schools, applied for state grants and are waiting to hear about the outcome. 

The absence of federal money still means Jamestown will have to shrink its program by about 80 students next year, most likely limiting it to younger children. 

“It seems really short-sighted not to fund these kinds of programs that have documented verifiable results with lowering crime rate, increasing school attendance, reducing the need for discipline, and raising their test scores,” Dyken said. 

“This is a drop in the bucket compared to funding wars around the world,” he said.

Soulsbyville Superintendent Jeff Winfield said he’s hopeful that funding for after-school enrichment will return as the economy improves. 

“All of us can agree, whether we’re in education or not, that kids need something to extend the (school) day,” Winfield said. “Or else they’re just into mischief.”