A Foundation Sticks With After-School Programs as New Threats Loom

 photo:  Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

photo:  Rawpixel.com/shutterstock

No grantmaker has done more to advance the idea of after-school programs than the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The Michigan-based funder has long believed that preparing children—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds—doesn't end when the bell rings at the end of a school day. It's stuck with this cause for decades, committing nearly $250 million in grants over the past thirty years. It has supported after-school program networks across the country, making grants to a wide array of nonprofits engaged in this field through partnerships, developing best practices, shaping public policy, and more. (See Mott's overview of its after-school work here.)

Mott's latest interesting effort in this area involves a partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center and its artistic director, Wynton Marsalis. Last month, the foundation announced it was granting $350,000 to the organization to launch an initiative that "will help afterschool programs use music that shaped our country to teach important ideas and concepts." This work will also entail "a national task force composed of leaders from the fields of afterschool and the arts" that will "review best practices and develop content that the afterschool networks will share with programs nationwide."

Even as Mott has promoted after-school programs nationally, it's also remained keenly focused on ensuring access to such program in its home city of Flint, Michigan, where its work in this area first began many decades ago.

In August, for example, the funder awarded a $3 million grant to YouthQuest, a Flint-based nonprofit that offers after-school and summer learning, as well as physical fitness opportunities, to more than 2,000 children in Flint-area schools. YouthQuest is operated by the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, and is offered to participating children at no charge.

Mott has been generous in its support of YouthQuest, consistent with its after-school program advocacy, as well as its commitment to improving the quality of life in Flint, which has been devastated by concentrated poverty as its industrial base has declined, and more recently, by a water crisis stemming from lead poisoning. A year ago, Mott provided $3.1 million to YouthQuest. Funding included training program staff to identify health and behavioral problems related to lead exposure.

This latest gift comes as a fiscal threat to after-school programs looms in the nation's capital. Earlier this year, the Trump administration and its education secretary, Betsy DeVos, proposed a budget that would zero-out all funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the federal program that supports after-school programs for more than 1.5 million children across the country, most of them living in poverty. Mott was a leading advocate for the initiative when it began in the 1990s. The program has been funded at a rate of about $1.2 billion per year, an amount that advocates say has not kept pace with the growing need for after-school programs.

The administration and its allies claim there is no evidence that programs supported by 21st Century Community Learning Centers improve student attendance or academic achievement, and that the programs amount to little more than federally funded child care.

The latest news out of Washington suggests that Congress isn't going along with the Trump administration's after-school budget cuts, although it's hard to say what the final budget outcomes will be. Regardless, funding in this area is likely to remain under threat. The Afterschool Alliance has been the top organization working inside the Beltway to preserve funding, and Mott has supported it for years, including with a $1.9 million grant this year. 

Because of the varied types of programming the funds support, it is difficult to assess the overall impact of programs supported by the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. However, studies by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that regular participation in after-school programs had a small but consistent association with higher assessment scores in reading and math. AIR also found that disciplinary referrals and absences fell among participants.

Significant cuts to after-school funding would create a gap that philanthropy alone cannot fill. That's all the more true since few other major foundations, beyond Mott, are engaged in grantmaking in this space. New York Life Foundation is a notable exception. As reported here in June, NYLF has poured $24 million into after-school programs since 2013.