Keep Illinois after-school programs afloat

Programs that serve thousands of students are at risk because of a state mixup. Lawmakers can, and should, make sure programs, and kids, don’t lose out.

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An after-school lacrosse program at practice in Chicago in September 2019.

An after-school lacrosse program at practice in Chicago in September 2019.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

After-school programs can literally save young peoples’ lives, and our state should do everything it can to make sure such programs stay afloat financially.

Research has shown, time and again, that young people are far more likely to become involved in violence during the after-school hours. One example: National data from 2019, compiled by the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, shows that on school days, the number of violent crimes committed by youth ages 7 to 17 was at its highest — 64.6 per 1,000 young people — at 3 p.m. The rate declined but remained high until 5 p.m.

We’ve heard the same message repeatedly from youth advocates and educators: Give young people options for constructive activity to keep them out of trouble. So we’re urging state lawmakers to make sure that programs across Illinois that are now in danger of losing millions, through no fault of their own, get the money they need to keep operating.

Editorial

Editorial

Programs around Illinois that serve thousands of students were told recently that they’re in danger of losing grant money because the Illinois State Board of Education miscalculated and then overspent federal funds that are disbursed through the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, as WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reported. The shortfall could reach $15 million.

Chicago Public Schools plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money to help out programs here that are in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, kids shouldn’t pay the price, and state lawmakers can fill the budget gap for programs elsewhere that need help. ISBE, for its part, has to make sure costly miscalculations don’t happen again.

Down the road, though, community-run after-school programs that operate on shoestring budgets need some assurance of long-term funding. That’s the problem these programs, as well as state government and private philanthropy, will need to answer.

A well-rounded education involves more than just the classroom.

The need is clearly there. Fewer than one in five Illinois teens — 18% — participate in an after-school program, yet 41% would do so if programs were available, according to the group ACT (After School for Children and Teens) Now Illinois.

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An after-school chess or science club, an arts or music program, a dance class — any one can make all the difference in keeping a young person engaged and out of trouble. Research for After School Matters, a non-profit that operates programs across Chicago, found that participants had fewer school absences and were more likely to graduate and to enroll in college. Teens themselves said ASM programs made them feel safer and gave them a sense of belonging.

Illinois aims be a leader in access to high-quality early childhood education.

After-school programs are another area where our state should aim high.

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