Education / Politics

Children’s programs face the mayor’s axe

Photo by Elaine Delgado

Kids at Casita Maria's after-school program.

Parents face hard choices if programs are eliminated

As the mayor prepares to slash funding for after-school programs across the city, Hunts Point children and their parents are bracing for a difficult future without such free safe havens as the Smart Kidz program at Casita Maria on Simpson Street.

“When people talk about cuts, they’re not cuts, they’re elimination of programs,” said Casita Maria’s director of programs, Marta Rivera, who was a “Casita Kid” from the time the program opened in 1961.

Rivera received a letter from the city in mid-May announcing that Smart Kidz is on the chopping block. The program serves 250 children, ages 5-12, from 23 schools around Longwood and Hunts Point. They learn violin and piano and get help with their homework, Mondays-through-Fridays from right after school until dinner time.

The center’s after-school program for middle school students, which serves 87 kids, would be spared.

Smart Kidz has received full funding from the city since 2004, and has an annual budget of just under $500,000.

Rivera and other after-school coordinators in the neighborhood are teaming up with Councilwoman Maria Carmen del Arroyo to try to persuade the mayor to rescind the cuts.

In a letter to parents, Arroyo warned, “This is a fight we can not—must not—lose.”

In all, only one area after-school program would be spared the budget axe, the Police Athletic League on Longwood Avenue, which serves 146 kids. Whether the PAL would have to weather some cuts, though, is uncertain.

“I still have some concerns,” said the PAL’s director, Miriam Pena.

With so few choices at their disposal, caretakers are scrambling to find alternative places for their kids after school starts in September, and the PAL is overwhelmed.

Longwood resident Paula Fields called the PAL to put in an application for her granddaughter, who currently attends Casita’s after-school program, but found there were no more slots available for the fall.

“I was told she can’t be part of the program,” said Fields.

Although the PAL’s primary program will be spared, its partner program at PS 48 in Hunts Point is not as lucky. Similarly, the Simpson Street Development Association’s Beacon program in the a building that houses several schools on Tiffany Street would lose 170 after-school spots.

If programs are cut, caretakers will face tough decisions. The cost of babysitting and child care is prohibitive for most Hunts Point residents, and Rivera worries some parents will opt to leave pre-teens home alone. Some parents said they would quit their jobs to stay home and take care of their children.

“I would have to definitely stop working,” said Alice Cortez, whose 9- and 10- year-old children are students at South Bronx Classical Charter School and attend the Beacon program in the same building.

“If I’m not there, who will pick up my kids?” asked Cortez, who works with families at a local Head Start center.

Cortez says her children get help with homework and other support they would not have otherwise.

“It is not fair to us working parents,” she said.

Casita Maria conducted a survey of parents whose children attend its program to see if they would be able to pay a share of the cost. Only four of the 150 respondents said they would be able to pay a $40 fee to help finance the program.

Job losses, too, loom for group leaders, administrators and teachers in the programs. Casita Maria’s program employs 25 group leaders and music teachers, most of whom are area residents paying their way through college with the income they earn from working in the program.

Adriana Contreras, 29, a lifelong resident of Longwood, grew up with Casita. She attended after-school and weekend programs, and now works as the coordinator for the center’s after-school and summer programs. She is also the mother of a 7-year-old daughter in the program, but doubts she can afford a babysitter for her daughter if Casita’s funding is cut.

“Not if I don’t have a job,” she said. She estimates she would have to pay $125 for a babysitter for her daughter if there were no after-school program to send her to.

The mayor and City Council negotiate the budget, which must be passed by June 30, the end of the city’s fiscal year.

Rivera thinks some funding may be restored, but is skeptical it will be enough.

“I have a feeling somebody from city government will come and give us a little something,” Rivera said, “but a little something is not going to cut it.”

Residents who want to sign and send a letter to the mayor requesting programs be restored can go to the 6th floor of Casita Maria, at 928 Simpson St.

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