Approximately $200,000 in annual 21st-Century Community Learning Center federal grant funding has been eliminated for after-school programming in Bigfork, Deer Park, Kila and Marion.
A current five-year funding cycle that supported the programs, which operated in a consortium under the umbrella of Bigfork ACES, ended on June 30 and was not renewed in the most recent competitive application process.
The Office of Public Instruction, which oversees the grant application process, notified Bigfork ACES at the beginning of the month that it had not been among the 16 organizations selected out of more than 40 applicants to receive a portion of more than $3 million in 21st Century Community Learning Center funding over five years. Grant funding is meant to support community learning centers in communities with students who attend high-poverty and low-performing schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Nearly 600 kindergarteners through eighth-graders are enrolled at the four ACES sites. The grant funded between 25 to 30 mostly part-time employees, who provided academic enrichment, recreational activities and homework help in a structured environment when school was not in session. Some of the sites, such as Bigfork and Marion, also offered summer camps. Sites also served nutritious meals or snacks through other grant funding sources.
A letter sent from the Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Elsie Arntzen described this year’s application process as “extremely competitive,” with “many changes.” The letter also stated that larger funding amounts were awarded to cover costs associated with an increase in “monitoring and accountability measures placed on successful applicants,” to reflect federal education standards outlined in the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Bigfork ACES Executive Director Cathy Hay, who wrote the grant, said while it can’t be assumed, in a competitive application process, that continued funding is guaranteed, the news is still shocking.
“The confusing part, I think, is that we’ve always been billed as one of the best programs in the state. The governor visited last year. I was sent to Washington D.C. a year ago to represent the state at the Department of Education on behalf of after-school programs throughout the U.S.,” Hay said. “We also won ‘after-school provider of the year [in 2010],’ when Governor Bullock was attorney general.”
The ACES program will have to wait until 2019 to reapply. For now, the four sites will be self-funded, operating independently of the state and of each other.
“It’s going to be a big blow,” Hay said about the funding situation, particularly for the rural schools.
Fees may have to be implemented for all children, which is difficult, Hays said, considering that ACES focused on providing quality programs to children from low-income families.
At this time, each site plans to continue offering after-school programming, but has to either make cuts or make up the lost funding through other methods.
In Bigfork, the goal is to avoid charging fees across the board. Hay said the policy has always been that children who qualify for free and reduced school meals attend for free. Even charging a reduced fee may result in an enrollment drop among a student population that may need services the most.
While other sites operate out of their respective schools, Bigfork ACES is located in a separate building, which adds to costs.
“I would say safely we probably need to raise $75,000 a year to make us a quality program,” she said. Bigfork had already been supplementing its budget by fundraising more than $30,000 each year.
“We’re not going to give up hope to get some funding to continue.”
For now, money that has been set aside will keep the Bigfork ACES summer camps going.
“Credit goes to the board of directors. They’ve done that, so we don’t have to close immediately,” Hay said.
Marion School will also continue its summer camps, with costs already covered by fees, said Principal Cherie Stobie.
The school will also continue offering an after-school program. The plan is to charge a daily fee, fundraise and staff the program with volunteers.
“We do have anecdotal evidence that being a part of the program has had a positive impact on our students. They improve their social skills, their academic scores go up with regular attendance, and their school-day attendance rate increases, as well. Parents report that it is a huge benefit to them and that they feel their kids get a lot of enriching experiences though the program,” Stobie said.
Deer Park School Principal Dan Block said some areas of before- and after-school programming will be cut back, such as hours and support tutoring, but it will continue to operate. Block said general funds will need to be used to cover the lost grant funding, further delaying completion of outstanding maintenance projects.
“We will continue to prioritize our students’ needs first and believe our program is vital to the 35-40 students that attend daily to complete homework, receive tutoring and work on enriching STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] projects in a safe and inviting environment,” Block said.
Kila School is planning to sustain its after-school program through fundraising and operating with limited staff and resources, according to Alisa Conklin-Jones, who served as site coordinator for both Kila and Marion under the grant.
“A self-funded program will be a definite burden to families with limited income, but we know that closing the program altogether is not an option,” she said. She added, however, that there is “a definite possibility of having to close the program earlier than the end of the year due to lack of funding.”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or email@example.com.