After-school and summer programs for kids and teens across Minnesota are closing or paring back their offerings, leaving thousands of kids without somewhere to go when they aren’t in the classroom.
The decline comes after years of dwindling funds for such programs from federal, state and philanthropic sources. No one tracks the entire pool of money for the programs, but in Minneapolis alone, four of the largest contributors — the state and federal government, the McKnight Foundation and the Twin Cities United Way — have dropped their funding from $37 million in 2009 to $17.7 million in 2017, according to the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, a collaboration of the city, school district, Park Board and Hennepin County.
“The programs that kids depend on and parents depend on are being severely limited,” said Ann Marie DeGroot, executive director of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board.
Leaders of the organizations say a variety of factors are at play as funding drops, including shifting federal formulas for aid and nonprofits themselves facing budget crunches, as is the case for the United Way. In some instances, grant money has shifted to other programs as issues like equity and early childhood education gain higher profiles.
“It’s become increasingly more competitive. You have the challenge of foundations changing their focus and impact areas over time,” said Catrice O’Neal, director of out-of-school programs for Plymouth Christian Youth Center in Minneapolis, which has eliminated 40 spots from its after-school and summer programs where children receive math and reading enrichment, learn to garden and, last year, even raised butterflies.
Alejandra Hernandez lost a safe, free neighborhood place where her 6-year-old stepson could go after school when Pillsbury United Communities cut its elementary school-age programs in Minneapolis last year. It had served 400 children. Hernandez, who works in a warehouse unpacking trailers, said she’s now shuttling her son to baby sitters in Brooklyn Center and Spring Lake Park at a cost of nearly $4,000 a year, plus gas and the time driving.
“I thought it was a good program,” said Hernandez, who attended Pillsbury United programs as a child and then sent her 13-year-old daughter there, too. “They helped you with your homework and getting you off the street and feeding you.”
Families outside the metro face a similar predicament. Duluth Public Schools lost federal after-school grant money, which forced them to eliminate some staff positions and cut scholarships for at-risk kids. Of the 55 Minnesota agencies and nonprofits who applied for federal after-school funding this last round, only 14 received grants, according to Ignite Afterschool, a statewide network and advocacy group.
“We’ve seen a pretty drastic decline since 2009,” said Kari Denissen Cunnien, executive director of Ignite Afterschool. “It becomes increasingly difficult for nonprofits to piece together what they need to make a program happen.”
A supplement to school
Attention and funding for after-school and summertime youth activities surged in the 1990s and 2000s. The movement was fueled by more parents working outside the home and emerging research on child development, according to the Afterschool Alliance based in Washington, D.C. Rising crime rates were on many politicians’ minds, and after-school programs seemed to offer an antidote, DeGroot said.
But crime rates have fallen since then and other issues have emerged. That leaves after-school programs trying to find the best way to pitch what they do to attract investments.
“We are having a branding crisis in the world of after school,” said Julie Graves, director of youth development at Pillsbury United. “It’s definitely not just child care. It’s supplementing and complementing the school day, and it’s really needed for parents so they can keep working.”
The McKnight Foundation, historically one of the major funders of after-school and summer programs in Minneapolis, has shifted some of its money to other endeavors, emphasizing racial equity and youth leadership through its Youthprise program.
The Family Partnership in Minneapolis was a casualty of cuts at United Way, which has struggled with fundraising. Family Partnership cut after-school and summer programs affecting 500 kids.
Not bridging the gap
One of the largest Minneapolis after-school programs called Beacons Network serves 3,800 kids for free at a dozen schools, but the waiting list is 1,000 deep, according to the Greater Twin Cities YMCA, which helps run the program.
“In some cases, we don’t know what’s happening to these kids — where they are going or what they are doing,” said Phil Rooney, director of projects with the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board.
Advocates are gathering research and making urgent pitches for after-school and summer program funding.
“We know that youth spend 2,000 hours a year not in school and not sleeping. That is the equivalent of a full-time job to fill with opportunities for learning — or not,” said Jenny Wright Collins, executive director of the University YMCA and Beacons Network, a collaboration of several nonprofits, Minneapolis Public Schools and Minneapolis Community Education. That’s why extracurricular music, sports and art programs are a priority for middle-class families, she said.
After-school programs could play a key role in solving equity problems like the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Growing bodies of research show quality out-of-school programs improve classroom outcomes, including test scores, behavior and attendance, according to the Afterschool Alliance.
School leaders are also recognizing the connection and pushing for more funding for after-school programs.
“In order to address the achievement gap, kids need high-quality extended learning opportunities,” said Amy Starzecki, assistant superintendent at Duluth Public Schools, which faced after-school program cuts.
Ignite Afterschool has lobbied legislators at the Capitol to restore state funding. The Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board is also trying to come up with a framework for a possible youth fund, similar to those in San Francisco, Denver and Baltimore.
“It’s an intriguing idea,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, who is on the youth coordinating board. “After school can be critically important to kids in their development. It might be a mistake to think we will address equity only in the classroom.”