Volume 23, Number 4 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 4 - 10, 2010
Downtown Express photo by Elizabeth Robert
Students from I.S. 89 protested the looming cuts to their after school program last Thursday in front of City Hall.
Protesting after school cuts, hoping for a remedy
BY Michael Mandelkern
Last Thursday Bob Townley, executive director of Manhattan Youth, led over 65 I.S. 89 students, counselors and faculty up Warren Street and across the Westside Highway, holding signs and screaming, “Save my after-school” and “Save our future” from the top of their lungs.
Mayor Bloomberg has proposed several measures to close the city’s $3.5 billion deficit, which he attributes to the $1.3 billion in state funding cuts to the city, for fiscal year 2011. One of the most contentious measures is the elimination of after-school and summer youth programs.
The Department of Youth and Community Development’s (DYCD) Out-of-School Time (OST) Program will lose $6.9 million in FY 2011, depleting Manhattan Youth of roughly $130,000 in city funding per year needed to run its free I.S. 89 after-school program in Battery Park City. Also on the mayor’s chopping block are 32 other youth programs citywide dependant on the funds.
“We’re not happy about it. We think it’s foolish,” said Townley two days before the rally. “We’ve had a real concentration on older kids, but unfortunately there are no other programs for them.”
Dressed in suit and tie on a gloomy, muggy day, he marched the crowd, which took up all of Warren Street, all the way to P.S. 234 at 3:30 p.m. to perform part of “Madwoman of Tribeca,” based on Jean Giraudoux’s “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” In the I.S. 89 version an oil company discovers oil under Gee-Whiz, a Tribeca diner, giving incentive to drill into the neighborhood.
“Tribeca is in grave danger,” said Townley before the play began and as some passersby gathered to watch.
“Do not bulldoze Tribeca,” yelled seventh grader Sophia Strautmanis with a large wig and loaded shopping cart in front of her.
“I just want my money,” retorted seventh grader Henry Lilian, who played a BP executive.
Children and parents laughed together as the actors competed with honking cars and the noise of P.S. 234’s outdoor after-school activities. Manhattan Youth’s after-school programs there and at P.S. 89, P.S. 150, P.S. 276 and P.S. 397, all in Lower Manhattan, are not at risk because they generate fee revenue and families are offered scholarships on a need basis.
“Well, I need money and I need love,” said sixth grader Raina Schoen, who lamented that she would lose her job as a waitress at Gee-Whiz, prompting playful “boo’s” from the crowd directed toward Lilian.
“The play shows their creative endeavors,” said Townley.
“This is publicity for what we do [at after-school],” remarked Theseus Roche, Manhattan Youth’s after-school director, toward the spectators.
As Townley led a “No oil, yes art” chant he switched gears to the protest. “Now we’re going to save our after-school for sure,” yelled Townley, re-energizing the rally as the protestors marched closer toward City Hall Park.
“You think I’ll be on TV,” a student asked his friend at the rally.
Despite the collective enthusiasm, however, some did not show up. Madeleine Foley, a college counselor at the I.S. 89 after-school program, compared the turnout to a “slow day.”
“There’s usually more people here,” she said and noted that some parents were concerned about their children participating in the protest.
Although attendance was lower than usual, the crowd grew in City Hall Park once I.S. 89 joined I.S. 78 of Brooklyn, another school slated to lose its funding if the mayor’s budget passes. The schools protested together behind a blockade separating them from the front steps of City Hall.
Two months ago Ellen Foote, principal of I.S. 89, who was at the rally, and hundreds of I.S. 89 students wrote letters to Bloomberg and City Council Member Margaret Chin, District 1’s representative, pleading for the city to save its after-school program.
“It’s a huge loss for us,” said Foote five days after the rally. She emphasized that about 200 children, two-thirds of the middle school student body, attend after-school, adding that several sports teams, including baseball, basketball and track and field, practice during that time.
Although she may receive scholarship funding from Manhattan Youth, Foote feels overwhelmed by the financial burden the cuts will place on I.S. 89’s after-school program. “So often the middle class is shouldering the burden,” said Foote.
Chin appeared, addressed the students and acknowledged those who wrote her letters two months prior.
“We want to thank you and your parents for coming out,” she said as the crowd gathered around her.
“I don’t agree with the cuts. These are core programs. It’s not a smart way to do budget cuts,” said Chin on Tuesday. “Once the programs are cut it’s very hard to start all over again.”
She then criticized the mayor for not exploring revenue generating options, such as raising the income tax for New York City residents with an income of $250,000 or higher, applying a real estate tax on Madison Square Garden or taxing hedge fund profits on Wall Street.
“These youth programs need to be saved; they’re not looking at the students,” said Chin in reference to the Bloomberg administration. “It’s probably not his priority.”
Chin praised the activities, such as theater, sports and homework help available in after-school, calling the programs a “long term investment” for children and families. “Ask any parent how much it helps,” she said.
She said she and other council members, including the Progressive Caucus she is a part of, from districts that may lose after-school funding from the city are pushing to save the programs with their own budget proposals until the current fiscal year ends on July 1.
Council Member Robert Jackson from District 7, which covers parts of Morningside Heights, Hamilton Heights, West Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood, further motivated the middle-school children at the protest.
“I do believe after-school programs should continue, so keep the pressure on,” said Jackson, inspiring the group to chant his name.
He then diverted the crowd’s frustration to the legislature in Albany. “The cuts didn’t come from us. I do believe after-school programs should continue,” he said.
Around 4:40 p.m. swarms of other schools and youth advocacy organizations from across the city joined each other and crowded in front of the park, raising the turnout to about 400, including P.S. 269, P.S. 172 and P.S. 1 of Brooklyn and the NYC Youth Alliance, which came with the After-School Coalition, a member of the nonprofit group.
“Now we’re talking,” said Russ Schulman, director of Downtown Day Camp, at the rally once they were all assembled.
A CBS television crew arrived shortly after, shining its spotlight on the NYC Youth Alliance with several speakers and a microphone in hand.
“In difficult economic times it’s terribly shortsighted to reduce the support that help parents keep their jobs while their kids stay safe after school, and that help teens stay on the path toward graduation and success,” said Michelle Yanche, director of the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition.
The sky turned a deep gray as members of the advocacy group shared their stories of personal growth throughout their youth, which they attributed to having summer youth jobs and after-school programs.
The Manhattan Youth Downtown Community Center has circulated a petition protesting the cuts, asking the Bloomberg administration to “identify creative strategies for generating the funds necessary to continue these indispensable programs.”
It also states “more than 15,000 children and youth will be unsupervised after school and without access to educational, cultural and recreational resources and highly skilled staff and mentors” if the budget isn’t altered.
According to a May 24 Quinnipiac University poll, 47 percent approve of Bloomberg’s handling of the budget while 44 percent disapprove. Following the announcement earlier this month of his proposed budget, his approval rating in New York City has fallen to 57 percent, a five-year low.
Although the DYCD has been able to keep 30 summer middle school programs, I.S. 89 and the 32 other after-school programs will not be spared.
“We’re sticking with the process we’ve used to determine our budget,” said Ryan Dodge, a DYCD spokesperson.
Some parents and teachers at the rally criticized the DYCD’s criteria of funding OST programs based on the financial needs of the program’s zip codes. They contend after-school programs that aren’t in impoverished areas still need money.
“Do you need to have drugs in the neighborhood and dirty streets to avoid cuts,” said Eric Silver, supervisor of P.S. 115’s elementary after-school program of 150 children, located in Glen Oaks, Queens, who came to the rally with children, parents and other faculty.
Not all of I.S. 89’s students live in Battery Park City; many commute from Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Over 40 percent of the students receive free lunch, which categorizes it as a Title I school, a Department of Education category for schools in which at least 40 percent of the families have low income.
“We know it’s true non-priority schools serve people from priority zip codes,” said Dodge. “We’re not saying I.S. 89 and other programs don’t, we’re not unsympathetic, but it’s tough times out there.”
Principal Foote, on the contrary, believes the zip code policy “reflects a total lack of understanding.”
The 33 after-school programs at risk are all within what the DYCD categorizes as low-priority zip codes and do not run full-year youth programs.
Mayor Bloomberg, however, will supplement $600,000 to support OST summer day camp programs in 30 middle schools citywide and raise $700,000 through private fundraising, benefiting 1,940 middle school students.
Whether the DYCD strips I.S. 89 of all of its funding or not, Roche said he is “going to be prepared either way” two days before the rally was held.
When asked if charging a fee to parents of children who attend I.S. 89 this fall is a possibility he said “absolutely.”
Gabi Sasson, director of I.S. 89’s after-school program, is optimistic that local businesses and parents would provide economic support if it loses city funding. “I think lots of organizations would love to help,” she said. “There’s a lot of concern [for the children].”
Sasson said students often worry about how losing the program could impact their futures, especially for those beginning their high school application process.
“If you don’t have track then how would you know you could do that,” she said in reference to a student who advanced to a statewide track and field competition. She also mentioned an 8th-grader named Anna who found her passion for theater at the after-school in 7th grade and will enroll into the Professional Performing Arts School in September.
“When they go to high school they will be able to what they want because they already know what they want,” said Sasson.
For many of the children after-school also develops social skills and provides structure to their lives. “The importance of having an after-school program is to build friendships, build opportunities and give us something to be enthusiastic about,” said Liam, an 8th-grader who plays on the junior varsity basketball team and is on the wrestling team.
“If I wasn’t in after-school everyday I’d either walk around the streets doing nothing or go to Barnes and Nobles and get no help,” said Matthew, an 8th-grader who spends much of his time in after-school getting homework assistance during study lab. He will attend Bard High School Early College in the fall.
Sasson, who has been working at Manhattan Youth for the past 12 years, believes some children “would be completely anti-social” without an organized program and more prone to spend their time playing video games and on their cellular phones. “We try to keep them as busy as possible and have them enjoy what they are doing,” she added.
Roche won’t have a formal plan of action for the I.S. 89 after-school program until City Hall makes an official decision, but if there are drastic budget cuts he does not plan on watering it down. “I don’t compromise on quality,” asserted Roche. But he did concede possibly narrowing down the variety of activities to keep the program afloat.
He is concerned about what middle school students would do between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. if they could not spend their weekday afternoons in the program.
“That’s when dangerous behavior begins,” he said. “It is best to keep them on a positive track and put them in positive social situations with their peers.”