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EDUCATION / SMART RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS AND PARENTS

Grants Put New Life and Length in After-School Programs

May 19, 1999|KATE FOLMAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Striving to keep students out of trouble and in good academic standing, school districts across Southern California will soon launch after-school programs funded by multimillion-dollar federal grants.

The Santa Ana, Placentia-Yorba Linda and Ocean View school districts won U.S. Department of Education funding totaling $4.2 million over three years to give children a safe haven while their parents work. Eighteen California school systems--including Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Los Angeles, Pasadena and Lancaster--also secured grants.

The free after-school programs, set to begin this fall, will allow campuses to stretch the school day through 6 p.m., adding hours--along with study and learning enrichment time--when many children would otherwise return to an empty home.

Focusing on inner-city and rural schools, the grants are touted as a way to reduce crime, keep children secure when their parents are not around and help students meet increasingly stringent academic standards.

The federally funded programs will be launched just weeks after Los Angeles County embarks on a similar $74-million after-school child-care initiative at 225 elementary schools. One hundred schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District and 125 elsewhere in the county with high percentages of students on public assistance will receive the county funding from surplus welfare money.

Taken together, the federal and county programs constitute the first wave of the extended-day learning phenomenon sweeping the nation. In addition to the federal and local programs, the California Legislature dedicated $50 million to after-school programs last year--an amount Gov. Gray Davis said he hopes to increase.

While affluent families have the means to keep their children occupied after school with everything from gymnastics classes to French tutorials, such opportunities often are not available to the poor.

"This is a very significant trend," said UC Irvine education professor Joan Bissell, who studies after-school programs. The programs address three major societal concerns, she said: boosting student performance, keeping children safe and out of trouble after school, and providing a place where they will not need to spend hours alone.

Studies show an improvement in academic performance, a increase in attendance and a drop in neighborhood crime and vandalism, Bissell said.

As envisioned, the programs will be a far cry from the low-cost, after-school offerings of years past, many of which stressed soccer and dodge ball but skimped on scholastics.

Instead, picture hundreds of students having a snack, then receiving one-on-one tutoring in reading or math, tapping out a note to an e-mail pal, finishing up homework and even engaging in conflict resolution training. Parents can also take part, joining classes that help them help their children.

"Most of my parents work two jobs, not one," said Christine Anderson, principal of Santa Ana's Harvey School, which will split $1.8 million over three years with two other elementary schools. "There is a pressing need for children to learn as well as have quality child care in this high-crime area. . . . When we put out notice about this program, I expect I will be overrun."

The Los Angeles program is expected to be a boon to parents who have not been able to find work--or accept a job--because it will operate for at least four hours after the close of the school day.

"We've gotten quite a few calls from parents wanting to get involved in this program," said John Brendt of the Los Angeles County Office of Education. "We've received inquiries from a few schools as well."

In the federal program, 176 school districts nationwide received $93 million for after-school programs. The grants were offered through the 2-year-old 21st Century Community Learning Center program.

California school officials will spend the summer sorting out details of their programs, which will be tailored to community needs. Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest district, captured $2.6 million, the largest federal grant this year.

"We're finding that the hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are the most important hours of the day," said Supt. Robert Fraisse of Ventura County's Hueneme School District. "Those are very vulnerable hours for kids, a time when many parents aren't home and kids need things to do. We as a country need safe places for our kids to go, and schools are logical places."

Orange County school districts are pairing up with community groups, UC Irvine and city park and recreation departments to plan their programs.

Many schools say they plan to offer important extras that were dropped during tight budgetary times: art, music and drama lessons, counseling and violence prevention programs.

Students at Diamond Elementary School in Santa Ana will be able to learn music on keyboard and recorder. Sun View School in Huntington Beach is getting $600,000 over three years, and will bring in members of a storytellers guild to read with children.

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