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Vermont Bill Seeks to Expand Access to After-School Programs

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Nearly a quarter of Vermont's public school students are enrolled in after-school and summer programs. Another 22,000—more than twice as many—would participate if space were available and if their parents could afford it.

A new bill about to be introduced takes the first step toward creating those openings.

The measure by state Rep. Michael Mrowicki would establish the Expanded Learning Opportunity Grant Program managed by Vermont's Agency of Education, and kick it off with $4.5 million a year in matching funds.  It also creates a performance-based accountability system.

Authority for setting the eligibility criteria and developing the application and evaluation process would go to a newly formed 13-member Expanded Learning Opportunity Review Committee.

"The bill would start the process to expand and create capacity to serve those students who would like to be in an after-school program but cannot because there aren't enough slots and new programs," the Democratic lawmaker told Education Week in an email. "The committee would lay the groundwork for seeking funding and implementing expansion of current services."

Running a 15-hour-a-week before- and after-school program or a six-week, full-day summer program in Vermont costs an average of $2,318 per student, according to a recent financial analysis by the PreK-16 Council, which you can read more about here.

The study also found that for every dollar the state invests in high-quality expanded-learning programs, it gets back $2.18 in benefits through lower crime rates, less drug and alcohol abuse, fewer teen pregnancies, and increased high school graduation rates that lead to higher-paying jobs and larger tax revenues. 

Mrowicki's legislation addresses the first recommendation in a recently released report from Vermont's PreK-16 Council, "Every Hour Counts," which we wrote about last month, warns that the cost of doing nothing to expand access would mean "there are more than 22,000 chances for bad choices, dangerous behavior or falling behind each and every day" in which students don't have a safe place to learn and play.

"Our after-school programs provide opportunities for students to explore science, reading, math, other languages, cooking, the arts, ways to be active and healthy, and much more," said Nicole Miller, the director of REACH!, which runs after-school programs at three small schools in northeastern Vermont.  "It's these types of after-school and summer learning programs that we want to make sure all children and youth have access to, regardless of how much money their family earns or where in Vermont they live."

About 40 percent of Vermont's 90,205 public school students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.  For a family of four, that's an annual income of $44,123 or less.  But cost is just one challenge to increasing out-of-school-time spaces. 

Many of Vermont's 627,000 residents live in small communities spread out around the state, and schools reflect that geographical sparseness. About a third of the state's 320 public schools have 100 students or fewer. After-school programs are sometimes the only organized activity available for children and teens, said Holly Morehouse, the executive director of Vermont Afterschool, Inc.

She recounted an exchange between legislators and students during her organization's annual lobbying day last Thursday in the state capitol.  The students were testifying at a committee hearing about the importance of after-school programs, said Morehouse, and "when the legislators asked, "If this program didn't exist what would you be doing?' Every single one of the students there said, 'I'd be going home.'  That would be it, the school day would end, and they would go home. There weren't other opportunities for them to tap into."

Mrowicki's proposal should be an easy sell to one group of Vermonters.  Parents support public funding of after-school programs by an overwhelming 88 percent, according to America After 3PM, a report by the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

If it passes, the first round of grants will be awarded by April 2016.

 

 

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