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State budget cuts target after school program for teens

Proposed cuts to the state budget have threatened after school care for middle school students, with programs in Canton, Franklin, Bryson City and Sylva already shut down or in jeopardy of closing.

As a result, middle school students who have benefited from adult supervision after school could end up home alone in the afternoons.

The after school program was funded through the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which could face a $33 million cut — or 20 percent of its total budget. The cut would claim $5.7 million in grants given out through the Support Our Students program, which funds after school care and summer programs at low to no cost for about 14,000 students statewide.

Local responses to the budget cuts have ranged from resignation to resolve.

When Susan Waldorf, a former coordinator of the program in Franklin, heard of the proposed budget cuts she wrote her state senator and governor in search of additional funding to keep the program running. But the grants they found amounted to $5,000 or $6,000, which was miniscule compared to the $77,000 they had been receiving from the state.

The after school program in Franklin had 45 children on the roll, with an average of 20 students attending. Waldorf said the SOS program provided valuable homework help, gave kids a chance to do arts and crafts, and brought in outside speakers who talked about their careers and experiences. The main focus was to encourage students to stay in school and provide supervision during a critical development period.

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“You see a body of a growing teen, but they’re still kids,” said Waldorf. “They’re still not wise enough to be turned loose for three hours.”

Ginger Middleton said her 12-year-old daughter Breanna Hill will undoubtedly miss the program in Franklin, which awarded Breanna with a Wii last year for her stellar attendance. Middleton is now exploring multiple options, including possibly having Breanna dropped off at her workplace for two hours after school.

“I know Breanna would rather be in SOS with her friends,” said Middleton. “She really misses it.”

Middleton said it would be difficult to start paying for a program similar to SOS since she already has to pay for Breanna’s younger sibling’s childcare.

Meanwhile, Jackson County already cut its SOS program last year due to budget cuts, and Swain County is also looking for alternative means to keep the after school service afloat.

Steve Claxton, community schools coordinator at Swain County, hopes to find grants that may help them continue the SOS Program at Swain County Middle School. They had received $75,000 from the state through SOS grants and charged an “extremely minimal” fee or provided scholarships for the service.

He said if the program isn’t kept alive, there may be some dire consequences.

“I can see test scores going down and higher dropout rates in high school,” he said. “These kids are struggling. They’re really not at the age that they need to be left home alone.”

William Lassiter, director of Communications at the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said SOS is one of 27 programs that could potentially be cut, including long-term youth development centers, group homes, and therapeutic wilderness homes for kids.

“The cuts will be very painful for our department,” he said. “If it were up to us, we wouldn’t make any cuts.”

Lassiter said that since most juvenile crimes occur between 3 to 6 p.m., that’s the time kids need the supervision most.


Keeping it going

A vestige of the SOS program in Haywood County is being kept alive, albeit in a new home in a martial arts studio in Canton.

Chris Lowe, former SOS advisor in Western North Carolina and coordinator at the program in Canton Middle School, said he decided to continue the summer program, even without the local school system’s backing.

“We were asked to call parents and tell them until we got our budget fixed, not to bring the kids. I declined the option,” said Lowe. “No, we made a commitment to these kids to operate the summer program, and that’s what we’ll do.”

Lowe wanted to continue to hold the program at Canton Middle School, but the school requires a $1 million liability policy for external groups who want to operate on school premises.

“It is a great program and Mr. Lowe has done a wonderful job, but we don’t sponsor programs that we do not fund,” said Haywood County’s Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte. “It would be like us being responsible for every childcare program in the county.”

With the school counted out as an option, Lowe turned to Jeremy Sears, who offered the use of his Academy of Martial Arts in Canton — for free. Lowe said the plan is to seek additional funding and reach out to the community to hopefully continue the service in the fall. As of now, he hasn’t changed the $50 a week fee for the 25 kids who have showed up to the program this summer.

“It wouldn’t be fair to go to parents and say ‘Hey, we got the boot, fork over the cash,’” said Lowe. “In spite of budget cuts, kids and families still need a place to go.”

Haywood County Schools is going through its own budget woes, with a loss of 14 teachers, 18 teacher assistants, a central office of student services director, two assistant principals, three custodians, and three secretaries this year. While Associate Superintendent Nolte acknowledges the need for an after school service for middle school kids, he said there simply is no additional funding to support it.

Lowe has changed the name of the Haywood program to My Sunshine, a company he founded with business partner Deborah Jackson this week.

Those who would like to contribute to My Sunshine may contact Deborah Jackson at 828.734.2115 or send donations to 129 Main Street, Canton, NC 28716.

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