Trump Administration Claims 'No Evidence' Afterschool Programs and Meals Work. Actually, There's Plenty.

April 3, 2017 | 10:46 am
Sarah Reinhardt
Former Contributor

When I sat down with Dr. Jacqueline Blakely to talk about her afterschool program at Sampson Webber Academy in Detroit, our conversation was interrupted. A lot. Parents dropped by to talk about their kids, kids dropped in to talk about their days, and the phone rang like clockwork. It didn’t take long for me to understand that there was something really good going on in this classroom.

“The kids get a hot supper, followed by homework help and an academic hour focused on math and science, and then enrichment—that’s when they do projects,” Dr. Blakely explained. “They’re on ‘fun with engineering’ now, but we’ve done a cooking class, learned how to put a car together, and soon we’ll get to do the NASA challenge. That’s when the kids build an underwater robot and send it through an obstacle course.”

With that in mind, maybe you’ll understand why I winced when I heard White House Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney’s comments to the press about afterschool programs and the meals they provide. “They’re supposed to be educational programs, right? That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they do better in school,” he said. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that.”

Omia and Orari participate in the afterschool program at Sampson Academy in Detroit. Photo: Jacqueline Blakely

Sampson is a 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC), a grant-funded program providing 1.8 million children in high-poverty areas with academic, STEM, and cultural enrichment activities during out-of-school hours, as well as snacks and hot meals. According to the budget blueprint released by the Trump administration last month, funding for these programs is set to be eliminated.

But make no mistake—it’s not because they don’t work for kids.

On the contrary, the most recent national performance data for the 21st CCLC program revealed substantial improvements in both student achievement and behavior. Combined state data indicated that over a third of regular attendees (36.5 percent) achieved higher grades in mathematics through program participation, and a similar number (36.8 percent) achieved higher grades in English. Teachers reported that 21st CCLC students increased homework completion and class participation by nearly 50 percent, and over a third (37.2 percent) demonstrated improvements in behavior. Research from the Global Family Research Project supports the conclusion that sustained participation in afterschool programs can lead to greater academic achievement, improved social skills and self-esteem, decreased behavioral problems, and the development of positive health behaviors.

“Kids are getting experiences that schools like ours don’t have the money to provide,” says Dr. Blakely. “I have kids that walk two and three miles home afterwards because the bus doesn’t stay that late. They do that all winter long—that says a lot about this program.”

And about the meals—I don’t mean to insult anyone’s intelligence, but how much data do you need to prove that proper nutrition is important for learning and development?

From a 2014 report from the Center for Disease Control, titled Health and Academic Achievement: “Hunger due to insufficient food intake is associated with lower grades, higher rates of absenteeism, repeating a grade, and an inability to focus among students.” In addition to academic outcomes, food insecurity negatively correlates with measures of health status, emotional wellbeing, productivity, and behavior among school-aged children. There are scores of studies linking nutritional status with academic performance among youth.

Contrary to common assumptions about who is served by federal assistance programs, these issues don’t just affect students in urban areas like Detroit. Food insecurity affects 16 million children across the United States, and of U.S. counties with high child food insecurity rates, a majority (62 percent) are rural. Stripping funding from 21st CCLC programs will be felt deeply in many underserved communities, among them considerable segments of Trump’s own voter base.

I asked Dr. Blakely about her response to the proposed funding cuts. “It upsets me. It further marginalizes kids that are already marginalized, and it makes a bigger gap between the poor and the wealthy.” She paused. “It makes me angry, too. You already acknowledged that they don’t get food at home—so you know they need it. Why would you stop a program that feeds children?”

What this comes down to, regrettably, is yet another display of the administration complacently setting aside the needs of low- and middle-income families, urban and rural alike, to pursue its own agenda.  Afterschool programs may not work for the president’s budget, but there’s no question that they work for kids.