Cost cited as reason for decline in Polk after school program enrollment

Published 11:20 pm Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Academic performance also slipping

COLUMBUS – Adding fees to Polk County Schools After School Program has resulted in a decline in attendance as well as a drop in academic performance.

On Monday, Dec. 4, Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Greene presented numbers to the Polk County Board of Commissioners for the end of the first semester where Polk Schools and the county recreation department combined after school programs.

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The after school programs were combined after Polk County Schools stopped receiving a federal grant for free after school. The schools offered free after school  programming through the grants for 12 years, which went away this year due to federal funding cuts.

The new program is called the Polk Enrichment Academy for Kids (PEAK) and is held at each elementary school and middle school. The Polk County Recreation Program shut down in order for the school system to serve all students with after school care.

The PEAK program this year costs $40 per week per student, with reduced fees offered at $20 per week for those who qualify. The program also raised approximately $50,000 in scholarships, which has helped 50 students attend for free.

There are 168 students who attended this year’s fee-based after school program, compared to 288 last year, according to Greene, which is about 60 percent of last year’s enrollment. Greene said that was disappointing.

According to Greene, the school system is finding that about two-thirds of last year’s after school students are attending this year, and about 50 percent of the Polk County Recreation students are attending.

The biggest gap is at the middle school level, Greene said. The PEAK program is seeing 15-20 students a day from middle school, compared to 85-100 students per day last year.

Often, parents or families struggling with finances ask themselves whether their children are old enough to stay home by themselves, Greene said.

Out of the 168 students who have attended the PEAK program 50 days or more, Greene said 50 received scholarships, 30 are paying the full $40 per week, 45 are paying the reduced $20 per week and 40 are paying the reduced $20 per week but qualify for a scholarship and are currently on a waiting list.

“When you look at the income of some of these families,” Greene said, “I don’t know how they make it. I really don’t. But, we’re trying to make sure any money we receive in terms of sponsorships, that we apply it to those students.”

Greene said Sunny View Elementary has seen the greatest reduction in participation at the elementary school level, with only half enrolled this year compared to last year.

“Enrollment is down in all locations,” Greene said. “Again, I hate to see that. We feel like it’s a quality program for kids and in the past it’s been a great service academically for students and for a cost perspective for parents.”

When asked why their children are no longer attending, cost is the overwhelming answer from parents, Green said. Looking at performance at school for the students who are no longer in the program, Greene said there are declines there as well.

“Based on grades and preliminary reading performance levels at this point in the semester, we are seeing the academic performance of students who attended last year but not this year decline,” Greene said. “And so, I’m worried about that. Their grades are a little lower, their reading performance isn’t as good. That extra academic focus and support is not taking place with those students, so we are concerned how to make up those gaps.”

The school system also had the goal of being revenue neutral with the after school program with fees, but are expecting to be $50,000-$60,000 over budget this year. Greene said the schools can absorb a little bit of that. Greene also said the school system has recently added an online debit card option to make it more convenient for parents to pay and has submitted several funding requests for grants.

County commissioners showed great concern over the report, especially considering the county school system is regularly ranked as one of the top school systems in the state, most recently ranked second in the state.

County manager Marche Pittman said during the next budget cycle, the county will do whatever it has to do to help.

Greene said he grew up in a home with a single mom and while some may think $65 a week for two kids isn’t a big deal, it is. He said he used to wonder why they had to cut wood, but it was to heat the house in the winter. Greene said the cost is overwhelmingly what school officials heard was the reason students are no longer attending.

Commissioner Ray Gasperson asked what the cost of the program was with the grant.

Greene said for the 300 children the school system was serving it was $300,000. The grants were for four years with the funding decreasing by 20 percent every year, Greene said, so the program would buy supplies in the first year.

Greene said the program could be run for between $280,000-$300,000 per year.

Gasperson said considering Polk is near the top of the state in academics, the county will have some hard decisions to make.

Greene said he hopes to hear some good news on other grant applications. He also said the three reasons Polk performs so well in terms of academics in the state are the prekindergarten programs, summer school programs and the after school program.

Commissioner Tommy Melton said out of 100 counties, “Polk County stands tall, and we’re very proud of that. There’s nothing more important in Polk County than the education of our kids.”

Commissioner Myron Yoder said communication is sometimes the most important thing and he really appreciates Greene coming to the board to discuss this issue.

Yoder said the after school program really helped some of his children.

“I’m sure we are going to revisit this and see what we can do,” said Yoder.