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Stimulus cash spurs after-care program changes for Santa Fe schools

This is a front page story in the paper.

Ohanian letter sent to The New Mexican:
I live in Vermont, but if parents and teachers at the E. J. Martinez school start a bake sale/car wash campaign to raise $31,824 so they can banish federal intrusion in their after-school program, I will donate.

These children are our children; they don't belong to Barack Obama, the US Department of Education, the Business Roundtable, or the publishers of all those skill drill worksheets.

So-called "stimulus" money couldn't be less stimulating. "Direct Instruction" is a euphemism for scripted curriculum--skill drill worksheets. It spells the death of curiosity, engagement, and hope. Research shows us the importance of play in children's development. They also need art and music, and if Mom can pick up her children early--for more family time--so much the better.

Let's take back our schools! Join the fight at Stop National Standards.

By Anne Constable

Parents of students who registered for the after-school program at E.J. Martinez Elementary School were told last week that they would not be allowed to pick up their children until 5:30 p.m., even if they themselves get off work earlier than that.

"It's asinine to say if I can pick my kids up earlier than 5:30 p.m., I get penalized. That's nuts," said Valerie Ingram, whose children are enrolled in the school's after-care program. "I'll see them for maybe two hours before they go to sleep."

Maria Rael, a math teacher at E.J. Martinez who runs the program, was calling parents last week to let them know about the change. But even she was not happy about it. "I'm not crazy about the 5:30 thing. I wish it could be more flexible," she said.

Because the district is funding the after-care program at E.J. ΓΆ€” and six other schools ΓΆ€” with federal stimulus dollars, it is required to offer 90 minutes of uninterrupted academic instruction.

Instead of arts and crafts, the occasional movie and other low-key fun, students will be getting another set of lessons in math and English at the end of the day.

"It doesn't mean the activities have to be dry and horrible," Rael said. "I'm a math teacher and I'm always trying to find ways to make math fun."

But one mother who arrived at the school Wednesday around 5 p.m. said, "I think it's a long school day as it is, and I should be able to pick up my children."

She suggested that if structured time is required, it should start earlier and finish earlier.

The district is now considering this and other options, Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez confirmed.

Initially, the district settled on 4 to 5:30 p.m. for the instructional time to allow kids a break for a snack and running around outside after school ends.

Gutierrez said officials are working on "creating flexibility within the system," while still abiding by federal rules.

If it weren't for federal stimulus money, Santa Fe Public Schools might have been forced to cut the after-care completely. Earlier this year the district was facing a $4.5 million budget shortfall for the new school year.

Now many families are assured of getting the services ΓΆ€” and for free. But, as Gutierrez admitted, there are "so many strings attached."

In addition to the required academic instruction, the schools must keep careful attendance records and sign-in logs, employ research-based curricula and submit lesson plans to authorities. And because the money is reserved for children in low-income, Title I schools, students at Wood Gormley, who used to come to E.J. Martinez for after-care, must now go to a fee-paying YMCA program at Atalaya.

Rael said that the district believes that if the schools can demonstrate that giving children direct instruction in smaller groups after school improves test results, "It might not be so hard to come up with money to fund after-school programs."

She added, "We almost lost our program altogether," because of funding issues. And, "A lot of children would (have ended) up going home (to an empty house), and that doesn't make sense."

The E.J. Martinez program has room for 65 children. Many families pre-registered at the end of the last school year, although some were reconsidering when they heard about the restrictions.

But the program is still popular with kids. Sofia Zambrano, a lively fourth-grader in her second year of after-care, thought it was "a great place to be." "I'm going to try to improve my organizing," she declared, adding that she missed school during the summer ΓΆ€” "even the boys." Sounding older than her years, Sofia said, "The teachers really teach a lot. I love how they care for us and how much effort they put in everything."

The district is using about $635,000 in federal funds ΓΆ€” stimulus dollars as well as Title I funds for low-income schools ΓΆ€” on after-care programs for students from 10 schools. In addition to E.J. Martinez, the programs are at Ramirez Thomas, Gonzales, Salazar and Kearny elementary schools and De Vargas Middle School. Students from Alvord, Carlos Gilbert and Larragoite go to Gonzales Community School while Kearny Elementary School students go to Nava for after-care.

The E.J. Martinez program is paid for with $85,324 in federal funds (including $31,824 in stimulus dollars) and LANL Foundation grant money.

The after-care program costs about $1,200 per child per year, which includes teacher pay.

Previously, parents whose children received free and reduced-price lunches paid $20 a week for the program and $5 a week for each extra child. Other parents paid $40 for the first child and $5 for the second.

Families are still paying fees for after-school care offered by other providers at other schools.

Because the district asked only for half of its stimulus money this year, federal funds could be available for these programs next year if they don't have to be diverted to cover other operating costs. That might depend on how much the Legislature appropriates for education, Gutierrez said.

— Anne Constable
The New Mexican


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