Pumping their fists into the air and jumping up and down on the steps of Borough Hall in Kew Gardens, hundreds of children protested last week against Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to slash the number of after-school programs in Queens by nearly 40 percent.
Because of cuts to the city Department of Youth and Community Development Bloomberg has outlined in his preliminary budget, what are known as Out of School Time programs would shrink from 83 to 51 sites in Queens. The cuts to the free after-school programs, which would have to be approved by the City Council to be implemented, would impact thousands of Queens students from all corners of the borough.
The mayor has also proposed axing two Beacon programs —community centers that serve people of all ages — in Queens, one at JHS 190 in Forest Hills and another at MS 158 in Bayside.
“I’d be really sad if it closed because some of us have been in this program since we were babies, and it has really helped us learn how to communicate,” said Sristhi Bhatia, 11, who attends the Chinese American Planning Council after-school site in Flushing. “It helps us with homework, and that’s really important.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the administration has said it is trying to improve child care in its proposed budget by implementing a new early childhood program throughout the city, called EarlyLearn NYC.
The students, bedecked with colorful homemade signs, were joined by a bevy of program leaders and legislators at last Thursday’s protest, many of whom lamented city cuts to after-school programs in recent years.
Slots in OST programs have dropped sharply in recent years, going from 85,513 seats in 2009 to about 52,000 in 2012 — a decrease of nearly 40 percent.
The decision to chop certain programs stems from which ZIP code they fall in — so areas like Bayside and Forest Hills are particularly hard-hit because they are home to some of the borough’s wealthiest residents. However, after-school leaders cautioned that the programs often serve students from throughout the borough, not just the immediate area. Additionally, they noted that many parents who live in wealthier areas are not themselves rich, and rely on the after-school programs because they’re working more than one job.
“These so-called affluent areas have many kids who are low-income,” said Jim O’Neill, president of the Sports and Arts in School Foundation, which is based in Woodside but operates free after-school sites throughout the five boroughs, including at PS 116 in Jamaica. “These are free programs that parents need. They cannot afford to send their children to any other program.”
David Slotnick, program director of youth and camping services at the Samuel Field Y, which runs the Beacon facility at MS 158, stressed that the programs not only offer recreational opportunities — such as sports, music and art —but a wide variety of programs designed to help children with schoolwork.
“These cuts will be devastating to the working families of Queens, who rely on Beacon programs to operate during school days, school holidays and summers,” Slotnick said. “The Beacon programs have been very successful in addressing the needs of the community by ensuring that at-risk youth, and youth that weren’t achieving their potential, have a safe haven where they can gain successful outcomes. We are deeply concerned that the loss of these programs will destabilize neighborhoods and erode all of the important accomplishments that now characterize them.”
A number of officials spoke against the mayor’s proposal, including Borough President Helen Marshall, Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing), Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), and Donovan Richards, a representative from the office of Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton).
“Youngsters who attend these programs do better in school, are more likely to graduate and have lower incidents of violence, drug abuse and teen pregnancy,” Marshall said.
Weprin emphasized that the programs are “essential in middle-class neighborhoods where parents are working,” and Lancman said “after-school programs are every bit as important as what happens during the school day.”
Meng agreed, saying the cuts “would be a slap in the face to all working parents.”