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Veronica Willeto

VERONICA WILLETO

Most parents and community leaders who’ve visited our after school program at Plenty Coups High School tell me that they’re impressed at how our students are so fully engaged in the various activities available to them, from our F1 in Schools science team to climbing club and archery to film club.

One thing I’ve never heard anyone say is that we’re spending too much money on after school.

And yet, this year, the president’s budget proposes eliminating the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, the principal federal funding stream for after school programs including our Pryor 21st Century Community Learning Center. It’s not the first time, he’s suggested it, either: Last year, Congress rejected the idea outright.

But because it’s again on the table, I went to Washington last month along with 200 other after school advocates to share with members of Congress the good news about what I see every day in our program: Kids, safe and sound, constructively engaged, learning new things, getting homework help, forming relationships with caring adults. I also shared what I can’t see, but what I hear all the time from parents, particularly parents working outside the home: Knowing that their children are safe and well cared for relieves them of a gnawing, every-afternoon anxiety about their children’s safety.

My visit to Washington was very encouraging in important ways. I met with a staff member in Sen. Jon Tester’s office. I expressed my thanks to the senator for taking a leadership role by signing on to pledges to maintain funds for 21st CCLC. I also met with the staff members at the offices of Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, who all said providing youth with more opportunities connected to STEM skills and careers was important to them and that they wanted to learn more about the role after school plays in workforce development.

Sponsored by the Afterschool Alliance, the Afterschool for All Challenge featured a day-long visit to Capitol Hill by after school leaders from around the nation. And while we met with U.S. Senators and Representatives, after school advocates from Maine to California turned up the grassroots volume by using social media to send hundreds of messages about the need to protect after school funding.

Together we reminded policymakers that after school programs keep kids safe, inspire them to learn, and give parents peace of mind. They provide homework help, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, mentoring, sports and physical activities, healthy snacks and meals, robotics, computer programming, college- and job-readiness, opportunities for hands-on learning, nutrition education and more.

We pointed out that current federal funds support afterschool programs for 1.7 million students in the United States. Ending that funding would result in fewer programs, diminished program offerings, and gutting of the partnerships between after school and summer learning programs and museums, businesses, colleges, and others.

As it stands now, 1 in 5 children in the United States is unsupervised after the school day ends. We told members of Congress that we should be working to drive the number of unsupervised children down, not up.

We went to Washington because we believe educating lawmakers about the many benefits of after school helps them make the best decision possible about funding. We were proud to deliver that message. Now let’s hope they heard it.

Veronica Willeto is site coordinator of the Pryor Public School 21st Century Program and the 2017-18 Afterschool Ambassador for Montana, working with the Afterschool Alliance.

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