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Iowa Schools Get Less in Grants

Iowa schools are receiving about one-third less federal grant money for programs before and after school and in the summer since lawmakers tied the grants to a new accountability law.

Eleven Iowa schools in five districts received new grants this year; multiple others were unable to renew past grants and now struggle to keep popular programs alive.

Some new grant recipients are already fretting about how programs will be maintained even as they begin outlining activities for the start of school. "It's great to get the grant - a lot of kids will benefit. But it will run out," said Superintendent Randall Clegg of Clinton, which received a $433,000 grant. "You ask, 'How do we sustain this program?' "

Past grant recipients, such as Perry and Marshalltown, are now scaling back successful programs due to "shoestring budgets." For children, that means fewer opportunities. Marshalltown this year will cut "extras" such as small-group counseling and visits from police officers during after-school programs.

The grant money is to be used to develop programs that keep children safe, active and learning outside of regular school hours.

From 1996 to 2001, the federal government awarded the money to school districts based on school-community partnerships and the need for the programs, said J oe Herrity of the Iowa Department of Education. During that time, the state's school districts competed nationally for grants and were able to collect $22.4 million over a four-year period. Iowa has the highest percentage of families with two working parents, which proves a need, Herrity said.

Distribution of the grant money changed after No Child Left Behind went into effect in 2001.

Allocations are now given to each state based on the percentage of students living in poverty. Iowa has a low poverty level compared with other states. That means Iowa receives the least amount possible in grants - less than $5 million per year. If funding remains stable next year, Iowa will have received $14.7 million during the past four years, after the system changed.

In comparison, California in just 2004-05 will receive more than $136 million, the largest allocation.

Herrity said Iowa schools probably would receive more money if the old system was still in place.

Clinton, Fort Madison, Iowa City, Keokuk and Storm Lake schools won money for the 2004-05 school year. District officials expressed a "very real need" for the programs.

"We're tickled to death to provide this," said Linda Brock , Fort Madison superintendent. "We have a high unemployment rate, the number of students on free and reduced meals is increasing every year, and here in southwest Iowa, we're not bouncing back like in other parts of the state."

Fort Madison will start a new program at two elementary schools, and Brock expects to serve 170 students. The program will focus on academic skills, expose children to fine arts, include family literacy projects and provide transportation home - and it's all free.

In Clinton, an existing program will be expanded, Clegg said. Previously, elementary programs served 200 students at three elementary schools through a similar grant. This year, services will expand to include four elementary schools, a middle school and alternative high school.

"It's for the families that don't have the financial resources to provide experiences to kids, like trips to the museum. . . . Things they just don't have access to," Clegg said.

"Hopefully we can patch together enough money to keep it another few years, but then it will be on to something else," Clegg said, looking ahead.

Previous grant recipients advised new program directors to plan ahead, diversify their financial resources and form community partnerships. Perry is among the schools struggling to keep programs running.

"I know we'll be here in the fall, but I'm not sure how we'll look," said Mary Hillman , director of Perry's Academic Cultural and Enrichment Services, the district's program. To keep camps, as well as before- and after-school programs afloat, student fees have been raised. "I don't know what these families would do if we weren't here. It's amazing how you can improve spelling, reading and math with fun activities."

In Marshalltown, parents and educators are concerned.

"We're very concerned about cutting these programs," said Matt Tullis , director of the Marshalltown All Stars program. "We have good instruction during the day, and we want after-school programs to complement that."

"It opens students' eyes to other things going on in the world," said Phyllis Mazour , a Marshalltown parent. "And I know my daughter is safe and secure. I know she's with good people, and I know what she's doing."

Some educators suggested the money should be used more wisely, instead of using it to start programs that could be discontinued for lack of funding. Clegg listed needs such as universal preschool or smaller class sizes in kindergarten, which he said would more successfully address the No Child Left Behind initiatives to improve student achievement.

Educators have criticized No Child Left Behind for inadequate funding and unrealistic goals. Although educators and parents agreed the money is helpful, they also said continuous resources are necessary to support the programs.

"We have great kids out there with a lot of potential," Hillman said. "We need to put support into that."

— Megan Hawkins
Des Moines Register


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