- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - Alabama is failing to keep pace with the rest of the nation when it comes to providing after-school programs, according to a survey commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance.

The survey, based on the 2014 edition of “America After 3 p.m.,” found that demand for after-school programs in Alabama far exceeds supply.

The report concluded that the number of children in Alabama who would enroll in an after-school program if one were available is greater than the number of children already enrolled in after-school programs.

“After-school providers and advocates in the state are working tirelessly to provide quality after-school programs to as many children and families as resources will allow,” said Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant. “But Alabama has a lot of work ahead if it’s to keep up with other states, and even more if it is to provide all children with the after-school opportunities they need.”

In the Shoals are of Alabama, city school districts offer after-school programs, but the two county systems, Colbert and Lauderdale, do not. Franklin County has after-school programs in Phil Campbell, East Franklin and Red Bay, all funded through the 21st Century grant program.

Officials in the districts without after-school child care say that doesn’t mean children of working parents are left unsupervised after 3 p.m.

“We appreciate our churches and day cares that take care of children after school,” said Lauderdale County Superintendent Jennifer Gray. “Those are the only options we have. I’ve not been approached about after-school programs. I certainly wouldn’t be opposed, but there doesn’t seem to be a push for it in our county.”

After-school programs provide child care for working parents, usually until about 6 p.m. The programs also provide tutoring and enrichment opportunities.

The 21st Century federal grant program is a competitive cycle of grant awards that fund qualifying after-school programs. There are currently 110 after-school programs funded through 21st Century. To qualify a school must fall under Title I impoverishment guidelines.

Mark Ward, an education specialist with the State Department of Education, directs the 21st Century grants for Alabama school districts. He said while more after-school programs are needed in the state, the major focus now is honing an after-school network that would map and connect all the programs in the state. Alabama, prior to two years ago when the network began, was one of only nine states that didn’t have one.

“We’re making strides in our state, and we can certainly see how far we’ve come, but we realize there’s still a ways to go,” he said.

Paul Morin, coordinator of the Alabama Afterschool Community Network, said there must be a great strategic commitment to resources and funding to ensure program availability in Alabama.

“From the voices of Alabama’s parents and communities, it is apparent only a fraction of the need and their desire for accessibility has been met,” he said.

The Sheffield school district has programs in all four schools, funded through the 21st Century grant.

Grant coordinator Sherri Baker said the programs have stayed full since the first after-school program began eight years ago. The Sheffield program has been a model for the state, as it implements technology and enrichment opportunities for students, including regular field trips.

“Our families simply weren’t being served until we got the grant,” Baker said. “We’d never had the resources to do it. There’s no way we could ever do for these students on our own what we can do with this grant.”

The school district has about 1,100 students. The after-school programs served 160 students last year.

The grant has also been a factor in providing after-school programming at Highland Park Elementary in Muscle Shoals the past five years. The school didn’t get the grant this year for next year, but Principal Hal Horton says he will apply and expects to get it back in two years.

“We’re going to be all right on our own for next year, but the thought of not having an extended day program is dreadful,” he said. “Out of a school of 200, we have 65 students in the program. Clearly, it’s a valuable, much-needed program.”

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Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/

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