This op-ed is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes from Tony Baker, Ph.D., who currently serves as Treasurer of the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education. In this position he is an advocate for children’s success throughout the city and actively works to create community voice in all major decisions that impact the education and well-being of children in the city. Tony is also a Professor of Sociology and Director for Community Engagement at Ferris State University. He is the father of Maya, a City High senior, and Sammy, a Central High freshman.
For years, I have been part of the Expanded Learning Opportunities [ELO] Network, which supports the work and measures the impact of after-school programming for children in Grand Rapids. Measuring the impact of this programming on the child can be daunting, considering we can’t truly know what that child’s life would be like without the program. Announcing United States President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget in mid-March, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said that although many of the programs to be cut sounded very good, there was little evidence to suggest they actually produced results, including after-school programs in Grand Rapids.
So, how can we know if a child’s academic growth is higher because they attended an after-school program? Personally, I relied heavily on the expanded school day offered to my children through funding by 21st Century Community Learning Centers, also known as LOOP in Grand Rapids. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative is the only federal funding source exclusively dedicated to after-school programs. LOOP is the name of the Grand Rapids Public Schools [GRPS] programs that are facilitated by the YMCA, Campfire USA, United Methodist Community House, and numerous others throughout the city. More than one thousand GRPS students participate each year in these programs.
The school day for most children in Grand Rapids ends around 2:30pm or 3pm. Yet, every elementary school building (often the most significant institution in the neighborhood) remains active long after. Children spend their time after school eating a nutritious snack and participating in academic enhancements, organized play, athletics, crafts, field trips, and even musical theater.
I and my children’s mom worked out of town during our children’s early school years. I would return to Grand Rapids from Ferris State University and stop by Grand Rapids Montessori on my way into town. I would meet the parents of other children, catch their teachers and principals, get a sense of my children’s engagement with school, and thankfully, become a part of their school community. I don’t know how to measure the impact of not having these experiences, but I also can’t imagine the impact of the loss of this engagement on myself, my children or really Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Many students in GRPS have parents who pick them up to attend music lessons, go to a park, participate in organized athletics, and enjoy all of the many ways to engage with science and arts throughout the city. My children participated in these same activities, but they learned musical theater, soccer and swimming at the Y or with a local choir director. They learned that they could navigate our community with many caring adults. I can’t measure their academic growth without these experiences, but today they are both doing quite well.
However, not all children have either set of experiences. Many go home, even if they will be alone. Many may have the television, or older kids in their neighborhood watch over them. And we know that they will be less safe. We know that these kids will more likely be hungry and often engaged in activity that does not enhance their academic performance. Again, we can’t really measure what that child’s academic performance or life would be like, but most of us still don’t trust this alternative.
But, there is much that we do know. Grand Rapids Public Schools’ success in its endeavors is based on multiple layers of evidence and data that we collect. The Grand Rapids community also relies on the support of local foundations’ substantial investment in supporting and measuring the impact of our after-school programming.
A key investment by the DeVos Foundation has provided significant data to support the outcomes of our Out of School Time activities. The Youth Data Center reports that children participating in these 21st Century after-school activities are safer. Students who attend LOOP are far less likely to engage in, be victims of, or even in the neighborhood of police encounters. Students that attend LOOP are far less likely to be chronically absent, more likely to attend schools and report greater confidence in their emotional lives. And we also know that children study more, get homework help more, engage with caring adults more, and are generally more connected to school than they would likely be if they were not in LOOP.
If Congress approves Trump’s budget as proposed, GRPS would lose $4 million to support this after-school work, as well as $2 million for professional development. We all live in an incredibly fortunate community with numerous resources for youth and caring adults. Yet, facilitating their connection to the children still requires significant resources. If LOOP funding is cut, our children will lose needed academic supports. Many will often go hungry. They will encounter our community institutions less frequently. They will be less safe, and, frankly, so will the rest of us.
After nearly 10 years as a school board member, I am quite tired of seeing our society continually disinvest in the lives of our children.