Thousands of youths at risk of losing access to after-school programs

Advocates for community-based after-school programs say as many as 40,000 youths statewide could lose access to tutoring services, recreation and other extracurricular activities this summer unless Illinois lawmakers approve an infusion of funds to keep them going.

“The time is now for legislators to act to save after-school (programs),” Susan Stanton, executive director of Afterschool for Children and Teens, or ACT Now, said at a Statehouse rally last week. “We literally only have weeks left before programs have to shut their doors. Staff will be laid off and families will be in crisis.”

ACT Now is a coalition of groups such as local YMCA chapters, Boys & Girls Club, and other community-based organizations that provide academic enrichment activities and other services during non-school hours for children and teens, particularly those attending high-minority, low-performing schools.

The programs that are at risk receive federal funding through the U.S. Department of Education’s Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

That money flows through the Illinois State Board of Education, which awards competitive grants to local programs. Those grants are made in three-year or five-year cycles. At the end of that cycle, the grants can either be renewed or the organization can reapply through a new competitive grant process.

The problem facing many programs whose grant cycles are expiring is that in 2023, ISBE miscalculated how much money was available and made commitments to award more grants than the state could fund. As a result, many programs whose grant cycles are expiring cannot get them renewed because there is not enough funding available. Advocates are seeking $50 million in state funding to make up for the anticipated shortfall.

Stanton said programs serving about 6,000 students were forced to close at the end of the previous fiscal year, and without an injection of state funds, another 40,000 students will lose access to services after June 30 this year.

State Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, has proposed legislation that would commit $50 million a year in state funds for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

“It’s not enough for us to say we support quality, safe and vibrant learning environments for our youth. We have to provide funding for that to happen,” Villivalam said. “I believe … that investing in childhood education is an investment in our future communities, and not something we should take lightly.”

Gov. JB Pritzker’s budget proposal calls for about $234 million for after-school programs, most of which would come from federal money. But Stanton said that is a different program that sends funds for after-school programs directly to school districts, not to the community-based organizations that receive 21st Century Community Learning Center funding.

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