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With No Federal Funding, Nashua After School Program Forced To Close

NHPR / Michael Brindley

The end of the school year in Nashua marks the end of the line for an after school program that organizers say was vital for the city’s middle school students.

Up until this year, middle school students in Nashua have been able to stay after school to get help with homework and take part in clubs and activities.

However, that program is coming to an end, after the state rejected the district’s application to renew its federal grant.

Nashua isn’t the only district to have its application denied, and state officials say it’s simply a matter of high demand and not enough funding.

As one of the last days of the year wraps up at at Pennichuck Middle School in Nashua, a few dozen students gather in the school’s cafeteria.

“Eighth grade, Mr. Barker’s room, seventh grade, library,” says Sheri Bullock, the school’s afterschool program coordinator, calling out the room assignments.

The students head off to homework club.

Bullock says the federal program called 21st Century is more than just a place for kids to hang out until their parents get out of work.

“After an hour of homework, then they get to do enrichment classes, like art classes and gardening. We have football, basketball, rugby we’ve done.”

Students also get a snack and a ride home on a bus.

All three of the city’s middle schools offer the program and families pay only $50 for the whole year.

But to keep prices that low, the program relies on a federal grant of about $200,000 a year.

That runs out for Nashua at the end of the month.

The bad news came in May, says district coordinator Sue Almeida.

That’s when she learned the state rejected the district’s application for a five-year renewal.

“So what that means for us here in Nashua right now is that the middle school program will end at all three schools and we won’t be able to have a summer program, either.”

Federal 21st Century grants are distributed to states, and then it’s up to states to award that money to local school districts.

There’s little debate about the value.

A 2012 audit found that among the two dozen 21st Century programs in New Hampshire, more than half the students were from low-income households.

It also found students who stay school were more motivated to do well in school, and showed improvement in math and reading.

The problem is one of demand.

“What we have found over time is we have about twice as large of an ask than we have funding for,” said Suzanne Birdsall-Stone, who oversees the state’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers program.

She says federal funding has remained relatively stable, though there was a 5 percent cut this year due to sequestration.

But increased demand means more districts lose out.

She says Nashua’s application is one of eight the state had to turn away during this most recent round of funding.

“We were asked for $3 million; we had $1.45 million. That’s all we had. So once you get to the end of that $1.45 million, there are no more dollars to go out.”

The Rochester School District also lost out on funding.

The district has an afterschool program at two elementary schools, which incorporates academic support and enrichment activities.

Steve LeClair is an administrator with the district, and says he hoped that with a new five-year grant, the district could expand.

“It would have funded programs at four different schools, the four larger elementary schools here in Rochester, and would have had a satellite program at Rochester’s Youth Safe Haven program which is located over at Cold Spring Manor,” he said.

“All that went out the window when this didn’t come through.”

He says Rochester will still have a reduced version of the program at two schools, but because the funding is gone, it’s not clear if there will be any academic component.

“We felt the need was there and it was a legitimate request. And my understanding is there were a lot of good grants that were rejected. It wasn’t because they weren’t up to snuff; there just wasn’t enough money to go around.”

Manchester, Concord, and Berlin are among the communities that won out in the grant competition, and will receive funding.

Suzanne Birdsall-Stone with the state says the scoring system takes into account factors such as need in the community and the program design.

But there has to be a cutoff at some point.

“It’s a very difficult situation to be in. So they could fund it if they could fund it, but a lot of districts don’t have a lot of extra money in their budgets to do that kind of funding.”

And with tight school budgets, Lynn Stanley with the New Hampshire Afterschool Network says most districts trend toward the latter.

She says it’s common during each grant competition cycle for programs to simply shut down when they’re cut off.

“And the ones who really lose out are the children from lower-income families. Many communities have after-school programs, however, the cost is often prohibitive.”

Like Rochester, Nashua has its share of poverty, with nearly half of students eligible for federally-subsidized lunch.

The state average is lower than 30 percent.

Paula Durant, a seventh-grader at Pennichuck Middle School, says she’s not sure what she’ll be doing after school next year.

“My parents are working after school, so I have to go right home and I don’t have anything to do. And I can’t get help with my homework after school, other than sometimes my teachers stay after school.”

Nashua’s after school programs in the elementary schools will continue because they’re funded through a separate grant.

There are other options for students in the city, like the Boys and Girls Club, but Sheri Bullock, the coordinator at Pennichuck, says having a program at the school made sense for families.

This is the time of day when kids are going to get in trouble, when they’re going to experiment with…whatever. And I feel like this is a great place for them to be. I have a lot of kids who are here because they have to, but I also have a lot of kids who are here because they want to be here.”

Officials from Nashua and Rochester say they plan to reapply during the next grant competition in the spring of 2016.

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