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Pandemic aid for schools is ending soon. Many after-school programs may go with it


Quality after-school programs can give K-12 students a big boost, and federal relief funds made available during the pandemic have helped those programs thrive. That money will run out this fall, though. Beth Wallis with the NPR reporting collaborative StateImpact Oklahoma visited a gardening program in Tulsa that may have planted its final harvest.

BETH WALLIS, BYLINE: Fifth-grader Andreana Campbell and third-grader Kewon Wells are tending to a garden box full of veggies and herbs during an after-school program at Eugene Field Elementary.

KEWON WELLS: I want to try this kale.

ANDREANA CAMPBELL: What does the kale take like?

KEWON: Not that spicy.

ANDREANA: I don't think you're supposed to take the kale off, and you're supposed to wash it before you take it off.


ANDREANA: (Laughter).

WALLIS: This program has relied on federal pandemic-era relief dollars called ESSER funds. But schools will lose access to that money in a few months. And unless they can find their own funding...

ERIK PETERSON: The unfortunate reality is that some of those programs are going to close.

WALLIS: Erik Peterson is the senior vice president for policy at the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance. He says after-school programs can have a real positive impact on students, including when it comes to...

PETERSON: Academic outcomes, on-time graduation rates, self-reported mental well-being indicators, just feeling more engaged. And young people in quality after-school programs are more likely to come to school.

WALLIS: The Afterschool Alliance analyzed 6,300 school districts across the country. It estimates 4 million more students were able to access after-school and summer programs thanks to those ESSER dollars. That's millions more kids building relationships with trusted adults and working on important skills.

PETERSON: Communication skills, both written and oral, learning to problem-solve, learning to resolve conflicts with peers and with others - but also, really, the skills just anyone needs to be successful both in school, but really in life.

WALLIS: Beyond the skills great programs foster, they're also just a safe place for kids to go when the school day ends. Lauren Sivak is the executive director at The Opp, which provides support for after-school programs in Tulsa like the one at Eugene Field Elementary.

LAUREN SIVAK: I had an opportunity to chat with a fourth-grade student as she was waiting for her chess club to begin, and she said to me, if I wasn't here, I'd probably be home alone. And I have not forgotten that statement since those words left her mouth, and that is a big concern to me.

WALLIS: She isn't sure whether the programs her organization supports will survive. They only have secure funding for 75 out of 450. The rest will have to find their own grants or donors to keep their programs alive. The gardening program at Eugene Field is still unsure of its future.

MARY SMITH: And we're just going to start with chopping the carrot parts - the tops - up as small as we can.

WALLIS: After the kids hang up their shovels and watering buckets, garden educator Mary Smith leads them in making a carrot-top pesto spread with harvested ingredients.

SMITH: We've got the basil that Kewon's doing. We're going to put some kale in because Jasmine found kale in the garden.


WALLIS: They fold it in with some butter and spread it over slices of bread. Now the taste test.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Three, two, one - bon appetit.


WALLIS: Fifth-grader Andreana Campbell is a big fan. She goes back for seconds - and thirds.

ANDREANA: Mmm. I told you it was going to be awesome.

WALLIS: Federal funding gave schools a taste of what it looks like to invest in after-school programs, and these programs hope that will whet the appetites of policymakers and philanthropic organizations to keep this garden growing.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Wallis in Tulsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAS SONG, "I CAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Beth Wallis
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