Richmond Times-Dispatch visits Higher Achievement

Richmond-area after-school programs targeted by Trump budget cuts

Published by K. Burnell Evans on 4.7.17| Richmond Times-Dispatch

Tyren Frazier is fielding calls from donors and board members anxious about the future of after-school and summer programs he oversees in the Richmond region that are targeted by President Donald Trump’s spending plan.

He doesn’t know what to tell them, he said, looking out over a cafeteria humming with activity long after most students at T.C. Boushall Middle had gone home. Kids grouped by grade level did homework, finished projects and clustered around banners marked with big ideas.

Hope was scrawled in technicolor across the 8th grade girls’ sign: “Shoot 4 the stars; Your only limit is you; Dance in the Rain,” they wrote.

“That last one’s my favorite,” said Dejia Graham, 13. “Because it’s telling you no matter what the weather is and how you’re feeling, you don’t let it change your mood or get you down.”

The uncertainty looming over Higher Achievement, a nonprofit founded in Washington in 1975 with programs there and in the Richmond area, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, has employees considering drafting two budgets: One with grant funds imperiled by Trump’s plan, and one without.

“Scenario B presents a huge challenge for us,” said the organization’s Chief Operating Officer, Jessica Walbridge Richardson. “If these cuts go through so many nonprofits will be looking for alternate funding sources.”

At issue is a $1.2 billion pot of federal grant funds that flows through states to after school programs across the country. The initiative, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, has been the target of fiscal hawks who point to studies conducted in the 2000s that raised questions about its effectiveness.

Trump’s plan strips funds for the grants as part of $9 billion in proposed reductions to the U.S. Department of Education budget, which would see a $1.4 billion increase in funding for school choice.

About 22,500 students across the state participated in these programs in the 2014-2015 academic year, according to an evaluation by the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis that was published last July.

Researchers determined the programs overall did not boost proficiency in math or reading as measured by students performance on statewide standards of learning tests.

But experts, enrolled students and their parents say programs such as Higher Achievement’s at three Richmond middle schools do make a difference. Statistics provided by the organization point to gains in math and reading performance on state standards of learning tests, higher grades and improved attendance.

The services are free of charge to families and more than 9 in 10 Richmond participants last year qualified for free and reduced lunch, a rough gauge of poverty.

For Jovani Washington, whose 11-year-old daughter, Joelle, has blossomed at Higher Achievement, the benefits are obvious: A boost in confidence; a diverse group of friends; tutors and life coaches who keep close watch when Washington is completing or recovering from shift work at DuPont.

“There’s so many latchkey kids this day and age,” Washington said. “Right now, I know where my child is and that she’s safe.”

Children living below the federal poverty line typically live in less safe places and have fewer opportunities than their peers, said Michelle Schmitt, an assistant professor at VCU’s School of Education who has served as a reviewer for the 21st Century program applications on the state level.

“Bottom line – it would be nice if all working parents had a safe place to send their children to that they trusted during the work day,” Schmitt said. “It would be a horrible shame for this to go away. If you could keep even 100 kids safe after school, how could that be considered a bad investment?”

Still, a spokeswoman for Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th, said that he believes that everything should be on the table at a time when the country’s gross national debt is approaching $20 trillion.

“President Trump’s proposed budget merely begins the conversation regarding spending priorities. Congress holds the constitutional power of the purse to set federal spending levels,” said Brat Communications Director Juliana Heerschap. “As part of the annual appropriations process, he believes Congress should objectively evaluate the need for every federal program.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-VA, said through a spokeswoman that the decision to target the program, as well as federal funding for teacher development also stripped in Trump’s proposal is “senseless.”  Kaine said that he “will vehemently oppose the cuts” through his positions on the Senate budget and health, education, labor and pensions committees.

“These programs are essential to Virginia school districts because they help develop high quality teachers and principals, close the achievement gap, and implement solutions to teacher turnover and shortages,” Kaine said. “Additionally, cutting the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program would jeopardize access to afterschool and summer programs for 20,000 students and families in Virginia.”

The state Department of Education awarded 33 recurring grants ranging in size from $50,000 to $200,000 to 21st Century centers across the state for this academic year, and continued funding for awardees in the second and third year of the three-year cycle.

About $735,000 of the $5.6 million awarded for new grants in their first year went to programs for Richmond middle and high school students and Chesterfield County’s J.A. Chalkley elementary, collectively, in 2016-2017.

The $174,555 Higher Achievement received this year for programs at Richmond’s Boushall, Henderson and Binford middle schools is a fraction of the $1.8 million the organization spends annually on its services there and at L. Douglas Wilder middle in Henrico County, which depend largely on philanthropic donations.

But about 700 students across its properties receive services supported by the 21st Century grants, Frazier said.

Among them is Graham, who said she never believed she would attend college before finding her voice at Higher Achievement’s Boushall site. Now Graham wants to attend VCU, Howard University or Virginia Union, where she plans to become a first grade teacher.

“I’ve always been a smart kid, but I used to be troublesome, especially when I was younger,” Graham said Thursday. “If I could ever do one grade over it would be first grade, so I figured why not start there.”

That shift in perspective is one of the intangibles that program advocates say can’t be evaluated.

“The reality is that added resources make a difference for kids, otherwise people who are wealthy would not choose to send their kids to expensive private schools with lower class sizes and more enrichment opportunities,” said Fred Morton, a former superintendent of Henrico County Public Schools and advisory board member for Richmond’s Higher Achievement programs.

Applicants for the grants submit evaluation plans to the state education department and track outcomes, but the goals vary and results aren’t easily compared across districts or states, said Schmitt, the VCU professor.

“The problem is when you try to evaluate this at the national level you lose the detail,” she said. “It’s like looking at a field of cornstalks. They may all be six feet high but at 30,000 feet it still looks like a green square.”

Higher Achievement, which has experienced successes among its students, is a more rigorous and selective program than many others receiving funding, said Mark Dynarski, a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the 21st Century initiative and written critically about its effectiveness.

Dynarski said Higher Achievement goes above and beyond the requirements of the program and therefore should not be the standard against which its success is judged.

“Imagine a doctor telling a patient that a certain expensive drug is effective but she’s prescribing a different and cheaper one that has struggled to show effects,” he said, in an email. “As patients, we would find this logic confusing at least.”

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