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Shut Out

After-school programs in Hartford say they aren't being given the chance to survive

Daniel D'Ambrosio

July 21, 2009

Johnette Gonzalez, a medical receptionist, relies on an after-school program at Batchelder Elementary School near her home, to look after her daughters Ciera, 10, and Geana, 9 when school lets out each day.

"It's comforting for me to know I'm not running out of work to get my kids and they're not OK," said Gonzalez. "Instead they're someplace where the people care."

But the program Gonzalez relies on and four others like it face a potential funding crisis.

Gonzalez said her daughters have learned to swim through the program Organized Parents Make A Difference, or OPMAD and have made lots of friends, but have also been challenged academically.

"I think that OPMAD keeps my childrens' brains stimulated in everything: learning, creativity, the fundamentals of life," said Gonzalez.

The program was founded in 1992 by eight parents who were worried about gang violence in Hartford and wanted to help, according to Sharon Tripp, OPMAD's executive director. The group went to the school system and offered to volunteer their time to offer programs to kids if those programs were allowed to be in the schools.

Today OPMAD is in four schools Batchelder, Kennelly School, Annie Fisher School, and Noah Webster MicroSociety Magnet School serving 400 children each day. But Tripp said the program is the smallest it has ever been because of the difficult funding environment for nonprofits. In the early 1990s, she said, OPMAD was in 18 schools.

"We used to get a lot of grants from local insurance companies and banks," said Tripp. "That's dried up."

Last week, Tripp attended the city council meeting on Monday night to talk about the latest funding blow to hit her organization, and several others, including Hands On Hartford, Parents Opening Doors, Sankofa Kuumba and Aspira.

All of these after-school programs were prevented from applying for funding from the State Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Center program because they were not selected in a vetting process run through Hartford Public Schools. The programs that were selected to receive Superintendent Dr. Steven Adamowski's signature on their applications for funding were Compass Youth Collaborative, Catholic Charities, Boys and Girls Clubs, The Village, and Our Piece of the Pie.

Hartford Public Schools Spokesman David Medina said the selection process was fair and equitable, utilizing a review panel of seven people and a scoring rubric to determine how well applications fit the criteria of the grant program.

The state grants, spread over five years, have been a "huge" source of funding for OPMAD in the past, according to Tripp. She said the organization would have received close to $500,000 had she been allowed to apply this year and been successful.

"Absolutely, we're facing a crisis," said Nandi Dixon-Smith, executive director of Sankofa Kuumba, of being shut out of the grants.

Sankofa Kuumba was founded in 1986 and has been offering after-school programs for more than 15 years. The outspoken Dixon-Smith said the process to determine who could apply for the state grants was not fair, despite Medina's explanation.

"[Sankofa Kuumba] has a fabulous program that meets all the criteria of the 21st Century grants," she said. "Why don't you let people from the state Department of Education tell me I don't qualify? Why do you read [my application] and say I'm not qualified to get the signature of the superintendent? We're talking about equality. We're talking about competition. How can you close the door in my face?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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