SNOW HILL — Although critical funding for After School Academies will not be renewed next school year, the Worcester County Board of Education is optimistic that avenues will be found to keep the popular programs running.
“It was disturbing and disappointing to learn that our highly successful after-school programs, which are supporting student success and cultivating STEM skills, have not received the necessary funding,” said Superintendent Dr. Jerry Wilson
The academies have seen a spike in popularity over the last several years, cited by school officials as largely due to an emerging focus on creative Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) courses. Though the spike in enrollment stabilized this year, roughly 2,600 students, or 43 percent of the entire enrollment in the county, are involved in the academies, according to Coordinator of Instruction for Summer and Afterschool Academies Tamara Mills.
The loss of funding, which will affect Buckingham Elementary, Berlin Intermediate, Pocomoke Middle, Snow Hill Middle and Stephen Decatur Middle schools, was “devastating,” noted Mills. She noted that rising Maryland State Assessment test scores in Worcester have coincided with the emergence of a strong after-school program over the last decade.
“We’ve seen such a tremendous improvement in scores,” said Mills.
Besides helping struggling or new students catch up, Mills argued that ASA also allow students who are thriving to further their education and better prepare themselves for college and an eventual career. No longer, she said, are after-school and summer school programs viewed as a punishment in Worcester.
“We feel like we’ve been successful in changing the culture,” said Mills.
Her attitude is one that is shared by parents.
“It keeps the kids engaged in learning,” said Mimi Kansak of the academies.
Kansak, who has a daughter at Snow Hill Middle School, praised the skills students develop in the various academies, giving a special laurel to the school’s highly-touted Glee Club.
“It gave her a platform to express herself,” said Kansak of daughter, Cassie, a rising eighth grader.
Kansak agreed that after-school programs are no longer seen as just a way for struggling students to catch up or at-risk students to stay out of trouble, though she did admit the programs do have both of those benefits. But for students who are already succeeding, Kansak argued they are a wonderful and engaging tool.
“She just looks forward to it so much every year,” she said of her daughter.
Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Dr. John Gaddis also emphasized the broad strokes approach of the academies.
“We believe that children are unique; that they learn differently and at different rates,” said Gaddis. “Some children need more support, while others need to be more challenged. We believe that offering remediation and enrichment through after school programs benefits all students, and we have been right.”
Gaddis added that there are “significant indicators” such as on-time graduation rates and the percentage of graduates who attend college that are taken as confirmation that after-school program is working.
With the funding cuts, Worcester is looking at having to fund $638,000 annually. Fifty-six organizations, including school systems and non-profits, applied for the $3.5 million in after school grants being offered by the Maryland State Department of Education in the most recent funding cycle. The money was eventually split between 13 organizations, none of which were located on the Eastern Shore.
Traditionally, Worcester has been successful in receiving these grants. Fourth and fifth grade academies have been funded by the state for nine years while sixth through eighth grade programs have been funded for three years. Grants operate on a three-year renewal cycle.
Now that regular funding has fallen through, the Board of Education admits that ASA is down but not out. Alternative funding options are currently being explored, according to the board.
“We will pursue every opportunity available to ensure the continuation of these tremendously important programs,” said Wilson.
Chief Financial Officer Vincent Tolbert said he too will explore all options.
“It will be fiscally challenging, but we will examine all options including additional budget reductions and/or seeking additional funding sources to address this cut in grant funding,” said Tolbert.
A new plan is expected in the next few weeks and could include pursuing outside grants, attempting to raise money in the community or appealing to local governments for additional funding.
“We’re optimistic that the community can assist us,” said Mills.