Editor’s note: This commentary is by Thara Fuller, who is director of Expanded Learning for the Windham Central Supervisory Union in Townshend.
As our governor-elect prepares his agenda, we hear that it is “all about the economy” now. That’s fine, so long as we remember investing in education is investing in the economy. And right now, we absolutely need investment in afterschool and summer programs — especially targeting rural communities where working parents often travel over some distance to their jobs or piece together multiple jobs and are gone for longer hours. Afterschool and summer camp programs allow parents to work a full day while their children are safe and learning. I know this because I am the director of L’AFTER and HEY! afterschool and summer programs that cover the small, rural communities of Windham County.
Here are a few stories about the links between jobs and afterschool programs.
Afterschool is essential if we want Vermonters to get and keep well-paying jobs.
The caregiver for my bedridden mother shared her story with me. She and her husband tried to send their five children to a local afterschool program, but the cost was so high they would not have been able to buy groceries. After only two weeks the bill was $390. “I almost died,” she said. So she pulled her kids and found a job as a caregiver so that she could work nights and pick up her kids at the end of the school day. Her husband could not leave his work at 2:30 to do that. Now the children do not have access to the tutoring programs, healthy snacks and meals, and enrichment opportunities from the afterschool program. They could not go to any summer camp either. According to their mom, they were home fighting with each other all day while she tried to recover from working the night shift. The job is not high wages and any advancement depends on taking expensive courses. But the hours fit so it is what the family needs while the kids are school age.
This is a simple example of how the achievement gap just widens and widens in Vermont. Families cannot break out of the cycle of low-wage dead-end jobs. Parents have to take what jobs they can get with the right schedule to match the school day. They can’t afford the education which might help them get more professional jobs with flexible hours. And their children cannot participate in extra reading practice or the next cool technology pilot program because they happen in be cost-prohibitive afterschool programs. They fall behind because they have no access to summer camp where they can refresh their school skills and strengthen their social-emotional skills by interacting with their peers. What happens to Vermont children who fall behind? Do they strengthen our economy? I think we know the answer.
What happens to Vermont children who fall behind? Do they strengthen our economy? I think we know the answer.
Kids in rural areas can’t just walk home after school.
One young man at our middle and high school afterschool program was showing great promise with some engineering projects in our “maker space” where we have 3D printers and equipment for science, math and technology projects. This student was building and filming contraptions in motion — and then he just stopped coming. It turns out that his dad got a promotion and his mom took on seasonal work and now they can’t pick him up. We provide a late bus but it makes limited stops, not door to door. It’s too far for him to walk, it’s dark, and the roads are windy.
At $700 a day for the late bus, we can’t afford to run it every week either. We share bus service with the elementary schools and take breaks when they take breaks. Last week it was the end of the quarter for the middle school and we had no late bus. The outcry about no bus was tremendous. One teacher told me there were students who would likely fail her class because they could not stay for extra help. They had no way to get home. Another teacher lamented, “Why is it always about the money? Why can’t we just do what the kids need?”
Afterschool programs employ youth in rural areas.
In many parts of Windham County, the school system is the biggest employer, with a scattering of small family businesses. This means there are not many options for teenagers to earn money and gain work experience. Our afterschool program at the high school has created a win-win situation by employing responsible students as peer tutors in the middle/high school homework help program and as assistants to the elementary afterschool program leaders. We gain a whole crew of young staff and these students gain maturity and real-world skills from their jobs. At age 15 and up they are able to contribute to their family’s income and make it a bit easier to buy groceries.
Vermont’s economy needs investment in expanded learning.
State investment in afterschool and summer programs, even if it were only to offset transportation costs, would be a powerful lever to lift our economy. It would immediately increase opportunity for every working parent to look for jobs based on rate of pay and chances for advancement rather than the timing of the workday. It would immediately increase opportunities for children to get the extra support they need to succeed in school and go on to create the “Next Big Thing” that we can’t even imagine yet. Education and the economy are not separate. We can bring in all the companies we want to Vermont, but who will work in them if they have to leave at 2:30?