by Kirk Maltais
A saving grace for parents who need a place for their children to stay in the hours after school, Richmond’s Park and Recreation has announced their new after-school program, which promises to be an educational and stimulating experience for children in Richmond’s public school system.
Available for children in kindergarten through fifth grade at 20 elementary schools throughout Richmond, the after-school program is open every day from the time school lets out until 5:30 p.m. The program busies students with activities that not only encourage development with academics and education, but also impart life skills to kids.
“We promote the ‘learning is fun’ philosophy,” says the website of Parks and Recreation. The city has participated in ongoing efforts to provide a healthy environment for students after regular school days. According to the website, goals of after school programs include “promot[ing] children’s success in reading by third grade,” “impact[ing] positively on youth life choices as they relate to community and violence prevention,” and “develop[ing] interest in cultural and athletic activities.”
“Homework, health, fitness, life skills and character building are blended with a variety of fun recreational activities, and this year the department has added a new emphasis on exposing children in the program to a variety of cultural arts, including music, dance, art and theater,” says a recent press release from Parks and Recreation.
Group sizes for the latest after-school program will be small, with a maximum of 15 kids for every one instructor. Not only will every child receive special attention, but everyone will also be fed dinner in coordination with the U.S Department of Agriculture, ensuring that every child leaves with a healthy meal to go along with this enriching experience.
“We believe that students are better served if they’re in an environment that can be safe and well structured in terms of educational enhancement as well as social enhancement,” says Charles Hester, director of Richmond’s Parks and Recreation. “We believe that these sort of programs, for the two to three hours a day that they meet, can be very important.”
Hester stresses that the after-school program, which has been around since 1998, is not only beneficial to student’s educational and social skills, but also to them learning the importance of character through the “Character Counts” program.
“We feel that good character can carry you further in life than anything you can ever have,” says Hester. “Our goal is to develop good model citizens.”
It is perhaps this focus on strong values that leads the after school program to engage in ambitious fund-raising projects. This year, students will work with the Operation Smile charity, which donates money to children in poorer nations with facial deformities, such as cleft palate. Hester lauds the student’s ingenuity in raising the money, and notes that the students raise a few thousand dollars every year.
“We want our students to realize that the world is only a click of a mouse away,” says Hester, also adding that “children love helping other children.”
According to Parks and Recreation, the cost of enrolling your children in this program is as follows: Per semester, it is $50 for the first child, $40 for the second child and $30 for the third child. Parks and Recreation only requires half of the fee paid up front, and then the rest is due within 30 days. The fees are waived for parents/guardians who qualify for child care assistance from Richmond’s Department of Social Services.
Despite the apparent good a program like this serves the community, do the rumblings of state budget shortfalls put any of the work of this program in question? NBC12 reports that Gov. Bob McDonnell has asked state agency heads to report their ideas on how to cut spending out of their own budgets. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has also reported that the education budget is in the crosshairs, with cuts probable. According to a report released by the Virginia Municipal League this month, 231 K-12 full-time positions were either eliminated or left unfunded in the past fiscal year. Parks and Recreation lost another 55.5 positions.
Contrary to the recent reports, though, Hester says that the program is not affected from these cuts, as this program does not receive money directly from the state. That said, Hester does admit that the program has to live within its means, and “tighten their belt.”
If the state were to cut funds to after-school programs, it would be a great disservice to the community. Numerous studies of after-school programs nationwide have reported the benefits for children who participate. One such study, conducted by UCLA on after-school programs in Los Angeles public schools, showed that participants in the programs were 20 percent less likely to drop out of high school, and were more likely to express aspirations of going to college. In another study conducted on Chicago’s public school system by Project Exploration, the numbers were even higher, with 95 percent of former participants graduating high school, nearly double the rate of other students.
Also to consider is the benefit of after-school programs for parents. A study from Brandeis University in Boston, MA, shows that, on average, parents concerned with the after-school care of their children miss eight days of work per year. Decreased work productivity due to these concerns cost businesses $300 billion per year.
With all of these facts in mind, after school programs provide a valuable service for children and parents all over Richmond.