Why parents in Chicago neighborhoods fear after-school program cuts

By Rosa Flores CNN

CHICAGO (CNN) -- Rachel Norwood doesn't like her 10-year-old son walking home alone through their Chicago neighborhood. In Englewood, a distance of a few blocks can make a huge difference.

One part of the neighborhood has been revitalized. A Starbucks and a Whole Foods have recently opened in a shopping center that is heavily guarded by police.

But just one or two blocks away, the streets are lined with boarded-up buildings. Smoke billows from a backyard, and the smell of burning rubber fills the air. They pass shuttered strip malls and deteriorating sidewalks.

"This is the hood here," Norwood says. "All of a sudden everything is dead."

The sound of gunfire is commonplace here, the single mom says, and her son isn't old enough to navigate that environment alone and exercise judgment about how to stay out of danger. That's why she accompanies Justice on his walk to and from school -- a 40-minute journey each way.

After work each day, Norwood picks Justice up from a federally-funded after-school program. If the program didn't exist, Justice would get out of school hours before Norwood's shift ends, leaving him to make his way home alone.

Funding for those programs is now on the chopping block in the Trump administration's latest budget proposal.

About 1.8 million students in high poverty areas across 54 states and US territories benefit from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, according to a 2014-2015 US Department of Education report. The states with the most enrollees were California, Texas, Arizona, New York, Tennessee and Illinois. The program provides activities including chess, boxing, cooking, STEM training, cutting hair, art- and jewelry-making.

Nowhere are these programs more critical than in Chicago's poorest and most violent neighborhoods, where parents living paycheck to paycheck rely on these after-school programs to keep their children occupied and safe while they're at work. They are a lifeline, parents and educators say, in a city where one child age 16 or younger is murdered every week on average -- something that police records show has been going on for more than a quarter century.

'I can't stop a bullet'

The Trump administration says the programs haven't proven effective enough at boosting scholastic achievement to justify the estimated $1.1 billion cost.

"This was to help kids who don't get fed at home get fed so they do better at school. Guess what? There is no demonstrable evidence they're actually doing that," said Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney during a White House briefing in March. "There is no demonstrable evidence they're helping results, helping kids do better in school."

If the budget passes, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program will only be funded through the end of the federal government's 2017 fiscal year, which ends September 30.

But supporters of the programs say they reduce the amount of time each day when students living in the toughest neighborhoods are hanging around outside -- limiting their exposure to stray bullets -- and that having structured after-school activities keeps them out of gangs.

Tanesha Tucker worries that her son, Jose Sanchez, 10, could end up in a bullet's path -- a worry many mothers in Chicago face every day. The after-school program, she says, keeps him out of harm's way while she works.

"I can't stop a bullet. Lord knows I would jump in front of one for my child," Tucker says. "Anything can happen and it can be with or without an adult. I'd feel a little better (being there) because my response time is quicker, my reaction is quicker."

In the line of fire

Many of the children who fall victim to gun violence in Chicago are shot because they find themselves innocently in the line of fire. Sometimes they are caught in the middle of drug deals or gang violence. Other times it's about who they know or hang out with. The street has been the most likely place to get murdered in Chicago since 2001.

Chicago's violence spiked in 2016 to a degree not seen since the late 1990s. The Chicago Police Department said 4,331 people were shot and 762 were killed.

If the program is cut, Tucker, a customer service representative at a cellphone company, says she would have to figure out a way to pay for after-school care. Even though it would create a big strain on her family budget, she says, "I would do what I would have to do in order to keep my son in a safe environment as much as possible without me being around."

For Norwood, it's so important to walk Justice home from school that if the program were ever cut, she says she would quit her job selling tickets at the Chicago Symphony Center.

"President Trump talks a lot about how he wants to help fight street crime, but in reality he wants to destroy the very programs that provide safety for children who might otherwise be vulnerable to the streets," said Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool.

Advocates for the programs say they also keep kids out of trouble. Nationwide, crimes committed by youth also peak in the after-school hours on school days, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In fact, one-fifth of juvenile violent crime happens between 3:00 pm and 7:00 pm on school days.

And children who are unsupervised after school are "more likely to use alcohol, drugs, and tobacco ... receive poor grades and drop out of school," according to a 2010 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention report.

Aisha Pullen says it's too dangerous to let her two children play outside after-school hours.

"Sometimes it's not about flying bullets. They (gang members) jump on kids if they don't want to join gangs. I don't want my kids subject to that type of violence," Pullen says. "Free time, empty hours, empty minutes without anything to do -- that's what gang members look for, kids with no business."

'Like dropping a bomb'

Cutting after-school programs would be "like dropping a bomb on the children" of Chicago, said Tio Hardiman, executive director of Violence Interrupters, an organization that mediates conflicts between gangs in the city.

Hardiman worries that with fewer programs, gangs will have easier access to a group of vulnerable children when school gets out for the day. "It's going to make my work a lot harder now because there is a whole other population of young people that we are going to have to pay attention to," Hardiman said.

And beyond providing a safe place, Pullen says the programs provide an opportunity that can help her children break out of the cycle of poverty. She says she can't afford to pay for after-school activities that broaden their horizons -- a summer program she looked into would have cost her $900 for both of them.

"I couldn't do it," Pullen says. The federally funded program, she says, gives her hope that, through education, her children will eventually live a better, safer life.

The majority of American voters want to save these programs, according to a March Quinnipiac University poll conducted in March. The poll asked, "Do you think that significantly cutting funding for after-school and summer school programs is a good idea or a bad idea?" 83% of people said it was a bad idea; 14% thought it was a good idea.

When the Trump administration proposed a budget in March that would eliminate 21st CCLC funding, supporters of Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization, rallied to save it. They contacted lawmakers more than 57,000 times by phone and email. The group also encouraged more than 1,400 local, state and national organizations to sign a letter addressed to Congress in support of the after-school programs.

Eighty-one lawmakers of both parties also sent a letter to the top two members of the US House Appropriations subcommittee, asking for the funding of CCLC programs at FY 2017 funding levels.

Funding for the programs was preserved -- and actually increased -- in the temporary spending bill that lawmakers reached to fund the federal government through September. But its fate after that is uncertain.

It's particularly disappointing to some parents in a city that has become a political football nationwide in debates about gun violence, race and crime. Trump tweeted shortly after taking office that he would "send in the feds" if Chicago's "carnage" continued.

"Trump kept saying that Chicago needed help," Norwood said. "He's not helping."

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