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D.C. Kids Prep For A Summer With Far Fewer City Programs

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Stacey Erd (left) is the executive director of the Beacon House, and Rev. Donald Robinson is its founder. Their funding for summer programs has been cut by 40 percent.
Kavitha Cardoza
Stacey Erd (left) is the executive director of the Beacon House, and Rev. Donald Robinson is its founder. Their funding for summer programs has been cut by 40 percent.

Youth advocates are estimating that there are cuts of approximately $17 million to summer programs. That means that up to 15,000 more young people will be without structured programs during the hot summer months compared to last year, leaving them vulnerable to negative influences and with no chance to catch up academically.

Cuts to programs that provide a safe space

Ten-year-old Aaron Williams loves ping pong.

"I'm not the best but I can play," he says as he tries to out-serve his opponent at the Beacon House after school program.

Williams has been coming to Beacon House after school for six years. It's a program in the Edgewood Terrace apartment complex that serves at-risk children in Northeast D.C. The neighborhood has improved over the years, but there's still crime. Just last week, children coming home from school saw someone being stabbed on the property. So this space, with its computers, story books, and sports teams, is a safe place.

"I do my homework. I can concentrate," Aaron says. "I got tutors to help me do my work and get better."

His friends Devon Carter and Sammy Payne also like coming here, but for different reasons.

"As soon as you sign in you can get something to eat. They ask you how you're doing," says Devon. "Even some of the coaches come to your school, talk to your teachers and make sure you're doing good in school."

"It keeps you out of trouble after school," adds Sammy. "You wont be doing stuff you have no business doing."

Last year 175 children attended a summer camp at Beacon House. This year, with city funding cut by 40 percent, it can only serve approximately one third of that number.

Stacey Erd, the program's executive director, will soon be turning children away.

"I dread those conversations," she says. "I've never had to say, 'we cannot serve you.'"

Erd says she worries about what's called "learning loss" over the summer as children forget what they've absorbed over the previous year and begin the next academic year playing catch-up. But more immediately, she worries about children having nothing to do.

"Unsupervised at home, or with very little supervision. And they live in at-risk communities," she says. "That combination puts them at risk for risky behaviors like early sexual activity, possible substance abuse, drugs and alcohol."

Dozens of programs receive no funding

Beacon House is one of approximately 30 lucky organizations that actually received some funding this year from the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, which distributes city dollars for children's programs. At least 80 nonprofits received nothing. Three years ago, the Trust gave out $4 million dollars; this year it was $1 million.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray says there have been cuts because the city was looking at a multi-million dollar shortfall.

"It's very difficult when you get into a discussion. Everybody says, 'of course you have to have a balanced budget; just don't do this, don't to that, don't do the other,'" he says. "But we're working as hard as we can to compensate for any reductions that have had to be made and will continue to do that throughout the summer."

He says they're stepping up programs offered through the Department of Parks and Recreation and other city departments. In addition, pools will be open, and the city will host movie nights. They are also trying to find more jobs in the private sector," Gray adds.

Students will be turned away from summer school

But it isn't just so-called 'enrichment activities' that are being cut. Summer school is being affected as well.

"It's going to be different in a very dramatic way," says Kathy Lally, who heads the summer school programs for D.C. Public Schools.

"Last year we served nearly 5,000 students at the high school level,” she says. "This year we're only going to be able to serve a quarter at that level."

She says last year any high school student who wanted to make-up credits could attend summer school. But with a budget reduced from $9 million to $4 million dollars, this year they're concentrating on those most at risk. So freshmen within two grades of moving into 10th grade, and seniors within 3 credits of graduating, could be out of luck.

"If they fall behind in the 8th and 9th grade, it is really difficult for them to get back on track," Lally says. "And then the really high stakes at 12th grade and getting as many students to graduate as possible."

Last year, 300 students completed the credits they needed to graduate high school only because of summer school. Lally says without these classes, teens would have to attend school for another year, which puts them at risk for dropping out.

Summer Jobs cut has many teens looking for work

For the past three years, approximately 20,000 teens have been employed through D.C.'s summer jobs program. This year that number is 12,000. And that frustrates students such as 16 year old Michael Burrell. He's had summer jobs through the city that paid more than $7 an hour. Not this year.

"It's been very difficult. They told me it was full... at capacity," he says. "I really wanted to work this summer. It would be nice to have something to do in the summer rather than just laying around."

Burrell says several of his classmates are also looking for work, after being told they wouldn't have a city summer job.

To be safe, MPD keeping more officers on street

The Metropolitan Police Department runs several programs of their own for approximately 700 children during the summer, including a teen camp and a junior police academy. This summer, they've tried to help fill the District’s gaps by adding 100 additional spots, according to assistant police chief Alfred Durham.

But he says he understands the concern from residents about a possible rise in crime stemming from more young people with more time to get into trouble. In response, the police department is restructuring its staffing to keep officers on the beat.

"Instead of sending our members for training sitting in a classroom we will having them on the streets," he says. This means approximately 500 officers who would have taken professional development courses will have to wait until after summer.

'Notice of cuts came too late'

Part of the problem is that many organizations that work with youth realized only recently that cuts were on the horizon, as officials realized they were facing an almost $200 million dollar gap for this fiscal year.

This never should have happened, says Ram Uppuluri, who heads the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates, a group of approximately 100 organizations serving children.

"We have many youth programs but they tend to be silo-ed away in different government agencies without any real coordination," he says.

By way of example, he references a similar situation that occurred this year in Philadelphia. Because it has a cohesive youth network that works with all government, nonprofit, and private agencies, they were able to better prepare and raise more money for the city's summer youth programs to prevent large scale reductions, he says.

Mayor Gray disagrees with Uppuluri's characterization of D.C.'s youth programs, saying the city has what he calls "a highly coordinated system" of agencies working together on summer programs. He says there will not be thousands of children wandering around with nothing to do.

"There are more activities that will be provided. They will be new activities that will be provided," he says. "We may not end up spending the same amount of money we have in the past but these activities have been available. And frankly we hope more parents and volunteers will step up to assist us."

They'll need to. With a $350 million budget shortfall looming for 2012, things are not looking good for next summer either.

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