Bell rings for after school program

Posted: Monday, May 09, 2005

Students at four of five sites of Soldotna's After the Bell program will have to find a new place for homework help and enrichment programs next year.

The primarily homework and tutoring program will be less available next school year due to a lack of funding.

Carolyn Love, Soldotna Elementary School program coordinator, said After the Bell provides high school students a place to catch up on homework and get tutoring to pass the High School General Qualifying Exam, while the drive of the middle school program is to aid students in the transition to high school and meeting benchmark exam standards. In elementary schools, After the Bell offers more enrichment activities.

"It is helpful to have an informed staff knowing we're here for working parents," Love said.

Now that the program will take an unexpected hiatus, many students who use the program will have to find help elsewhere.

Love said students at the high school level could adapt to the lack of the program if they took more personal responsibility for their studying combined with more responsibility taken up by their parents. That is not the case for middle school or elementary students — creating a dilemma. Love said a possible answer would be students take more of an interest in various other youth organizations.

After the Bell board president Ginger Steffy said the program has been operating on earmark grants, a specific designation of funds, initiated by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

"We would get the grant as long as we were doing what the appropriation was being used for," Steffy said.

Each of the past two years, After the Bell received just over $99,000.

"(Stevens) had helped us for two years to give us time to look for grants," Steffy said. "This past year, he got a lot more requests and the budget got tighter and tighter. In March, his office told us we didn't get the grant."

The board faced some difficulty in finding grants that fit with the program. It looked at 21st Century grants, which they did not match because the program did not deal with a high percentage of high-risk students.

"We could find grants that would allow us to expand the program with art and music, but none that would help us with operating costs. There was not much in the way of helping to keep doing what you were already doing," Steffy said.

Federal funding had been floating two-thirds of the budget and donations from within the community carried the rest. After the Bell accepted money from the city of Soldotna, several businesses, corporations and other organizations.

Program leaders decided it would be better to maintain one site with what funds are left, instead of keeping all sites open for a limited period.

According to Steffy, the priority was to keep the site with the most and youngest kids open — Soldotna Elementary. In the meantime, a newly hired grant writer will seek funds needed to maintain a pulse for the program. Annual fund-raisers will remain in place and will play a more crucial role in the life of After the Bell.

"We plan to get it back up so we can offer this to all five sites. Soft money is all about short term," Steffy said.

Theresa Napolitano has two daughters involved in the program at Soldotna Elementary School. Nothing will change for her kids immediately but she's worried about the following year when her oldest moves up to middle school. She said her kids thoroughly enjoy the program and they will likely eventually have to do without.

"That's going to be a drag," Napolitano said.

One of her alternatives would be to put her kids in day care during that time. Those costs are much higher.

Napolitano said her kids enjoy the 4-H programs offered through After the Bell. They participate in arts enrichment programs and have made many new friends.

"They come out of there just really happy. If they weren't there, they might be home watching TV with a baby-sitter," Napolitano said.

Executive program director Tammy Hanley said it is uncertain if and when the program will be running again at full capacity, but hopes to have the program at Soldotna Middle School back up and running by 2006.

In a letter to the Clarion, Hanley further expressed her sense of the funding situation.

"Our understanding is that those funds were never meant to be awarded to us more than once. We felt very privileged to receive $99,000 twice. We do not fault Sen. Stevens for not repeating the funds for a third year. Rather, we are very grateful that we had that funding at all. ..."

The last day of After the Bell programs will be May 19 at Redoubt Elementary and Soldotna Middle, May 20 at Soldotna Elementary and May 24 at Skyview High. The program at Soldotna Elementary is the only program that will reopen next fall. The last day for the program at Soldotna High was May 5.

"The outlook is positive, but the timing is not," Hanley said.

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