Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Community and Education - What Price Do You Put on That?

Anna June attends Avondale Elementary School, in the City of Birmingham. There are lots of reasons we think it's the best in the city, but one of them is the After School Care program. At After School Care, our daughter is a part of a caring community of adults and kids who help make Avondale what it is.

After School Care is run by the Department of Community Education, which is split into five Community Schools. Ours is Community Education South, located in the former Comer School, right around the corner from my parents' house.

Community Education South (which, if I recall correctly was the merger of Eastwood Community School and Avondale Community School) does much more than run After School Care, by the way. It's been around for forty years, and my family has been taking advantage of its low-cost, high-value programs for more than half of that time. My brothers played basketball and soccer there. When I was a teenager, I learned how to type from a program in this department - and I don't think I can emphasize how important that skill has been. They provided aerobics classes where I met many dear friends and spent quality time with my mom. They currently provide a home for a local theater troupe, a place for senior citizen education classes, career training opportunities, and our neighborhood meetings. There's even a "community band" that has started up for folks who played (maybe in high school) and want to start back. I'm not trying to start any rumors about art and music lacking in our school, but it is public school, and cuts are always on the table - Community Ed is clearly a champion of the arts. At least in our neighborhood, Community Education is one thing that's working and contributing to Birmingham's success.

On May 19, Interim Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Dr. Spencer Horn called a meeting with members of the Department of Community Education and a representative from their Human Resources department, and stated that the Department of Community Education would be eliminated before next school year (which begins August 5) due to lack of support from the City of Birmingham.

Back on May 12, Birmingham Mayor William Bell wrote a letter to Dr. Horn informing enclosing a check for $248,210.00, which was their commitment to the Department of Community Ed for the first semester of 2014-2015. In that letter, Mayor Bell informed Dr. Horn that he had already spoken to Dr. Witherspoon, the former Superintendent, and expressed the city would be going in another direction and not supporting BCS' Community Ed for the second semester. I have not heard how the Department plans to cover its bills from the second semester, now at a close. I also do not know that if Dr. Witherspoon knew at the beginning of the school year - or at least before he left on December 31 - why the Department was not informed, and parents were left in the dark.

On May 21, al.com posted this article by Madison Underwood, who covers education. (Go ahead and follow the link - the search function on al.com is notoriously awful.)

Underwood reports that some of the functions of Community Ed will be absorbed by the My Brother's Keeper initiative, a White House program championed and co-chaired by our mayor. The only definite program I have seen so far is that BCS will be forming MBK breakfast clubs at their middle schools. We have heard nothing about after school.

Further, the City is no longer providing free security at high school football games. This is not my main concern or area of familiarity, but the already tight athletics budgets at our schools will not be able to sustain this hit, estimated at around $500,000.

In an email exchange with my city councilor, Kim Rafferty, it was pointed out that the money given to the schools by the city is not a line item budget, and the schools can do with it what they deem the best use of funds. Also, the Schools never specifically asked for money to fund Community Ed.  At the moment, to us, it seems that the Schools are blaming the City and the City is blaming the Schools. Either way, the children are losing out.

On May 22, Dr. Horn sent a letter home to parents saying that although the Department will be eliminated, the Schools will be working for alternative solutions and will keep us informed.

For me, this is not a good enough response. Without seeing the plans for My Brother's Keeper programs (specifically, at my child's school), I do not feel comfortable with not knowing what is happening with after school care. We have 71 days until school starts again. I don't know how a program can be developed, employees can be hired and trained, and parents can be informed of their options in that short of a time. If other community agencies already offering after school programs, such as AG Gaston Boys and Girls Clubs, will absorb more students, they also need time to plan and build capacity.

Avondale After School care serves an average of 55 children. Oliver serves about 20 and Phillips serves about 80. That's 155 kids JUST from Community Education South's direction that will lose after school care services. Then multiply that by the other 4 community schools providing similar services. That is hundreds of families that have no idea what they will do, not to mention the employees that will lose their jobs. 

Besides just the numbers, though, this is a good program! Our daughter has been exposed to art, storytelling, dance, tennis, chess, gardening, computer and many other opportunities throughout the three years we have participated. She gets a snack. She gets her homework done. She has the opportunity to socialize with children outside of her class. And she has fun! We don't have to leave work early, and it is a fantastic value. Those who cannot afford the tuition are referred to resources that can help them pay. 

I believe that quality child care, such as we have with Avondale's After School Care is vital to a community's economic and social health and well-being.

In Birmingham, for non-retail jobs, it is normal for people to be expected to work from 8 AM to 5 PM, with an hour for lunch. Those are my hours and my husband's hours. When Anna June was offered a slot in Avondale's Pre-K program, we were wary of switching from her private daycare, where she loved it and could stay until 6 PM. Gail Smith, the coordinator of Community Education South, personally called me and explained how our four-year-old would be well taken care of after school. Then she had the Avondale director call me, too. We were assured that AJ would be safe on the school property until we could pick her up. This was a major factor in our decision to try public education. Without this option, I don't know how many working parents will be able to make the same choice. 

What can you do to help? If you are a resident of Birmingham, whether you have a child or not, I encourage you to do the following:
1. Attend the special called financial budget City Council meeting on Thursday, May 28 at 5:30 PM in the Birmingham City Hall's City Council Chambers (710 North 20th Street). We're being encouraged to arrive at 5:00. Show support and speak up on behalf of Community Education.
2. Write your elected Board of Education representative to ask him or her to attend the meeting and stand up for Community Education and after school care. Some members have email addresses listed on this website, and some don't (another improvement we need to make!) - if you can't email them directly, use the "contact us" form on the website.
3. Write your City Council representative and ask him or her to support Community Education and after school care. Email addresses should be listed in each representative's profile.
4. Vote - when the time comes, remember who stood up to help and who didn't!


Juliet said...

Thank you so much for this informative article! I will follow up with your suggestions. Keep up the good work!

Laura Gallitz said...

Thank you so much for your help! I look forward to seeing what we can do together.

Annie Gallitz said...
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Annie Gallitz said...
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Annie Gallitz said...
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Annie Gallitz said...

THis is so distressing!! I must say, tho, Laura, that you are at your best when you take on the role of community activist. I HOPE-----very much so------ that you will be able to help remedy this situation. ( don't these school reps have any kids of their own? IN the school system ?)

Annie Gallitz said...
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Annie Gallitz said...
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