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Webster Avenue’s PAL Fights to Keep After-School Programs in the Spotlight

October 20, 2006

By JAMES FERGUSSON

Oct. 20 – Last week the Police Athletic League’s Webster Avenue Center, joined thousands of other youth organizations across the country in rallying for after-school programs, whose existence, supporters say, are threatened by a dearth in government funds.

The Afterschool Alliance, a leading advocate for after school-programs, was behind the nationwide initiative, called “Lights on Afterschool.”

According to the Alliance, over 14 million children in America are unsupervised in the hours after school hours, and with funding authorized by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, in danger of falling further behind, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

At the Webster Avenue Center, children and staff decorated the lobby and brought in light bulbs to metaphorically shine light on the issue.

“If funding levels continue to drop we won’t be able to employ as many people, and so not service as many children,” said Staci Johnson, the Center’s new director. “Children would be left out on the street with no where to go.”

The Center, a three story building at 2255 Webster Avenue in Fordham, runs four programs: an after-school program for kids ages 6 to 13, and an evening program for teenagers and adults, a Saturday program, and a summer school.

In the afternoon session, those enrolled take computer classes, participate in team sports, and try their hands at theatre, creative arts, and boxing, to name just a few activities. There’s also a strong focus on reinforcing what’s taught during school; each day 45 minutes is put aside for homework, and help with that homework if necessary.

That the Center is in need of some refurbishment is not in doubt. But the artwork on the walls, the friendly, genuine staff, and the demeanor of the children – who appear happy and relaxed – lifts the mood.

Shareeft Otto, 12, a fifth grader at nearby PS 85, said she enjoys her time at the Center. And she’s fond of the staff and volunteers. “They are very patient, they don’t get mad if you mess up,” she said, following a game of basketball at the Center earlier this month. Plus, she added, the Police Athletic League gives her mother peace of mind. “She don’t want me to be outside. It keeps us out of trouble.”

As part of “Lights on Afterschool,” students were asked to write down their thoughts about the Center. Maigan Monsanto, 13, wrote: “What I like about the after-school program, is it helps kids do something beside watching T.V. It also keeps you active… At home it is boring, at PAL I actually have something to do… You meet new people, have fun. PAL is a good way to spend your time.”

There are 72 children in the after-school program, approximately 50 below capacity. Whereas 80 per cent of the city’s programs operated at or above full capacity during the 2005-06 school year, according to the Alliance, over-enrolment hasn’t been a problem at Webster Avenue.

Gwen Majette, the Center’s education coordinator, admits this is a stumbling block when asking for more money. “They [funders] won’t budge until we get our numbers up,” she said.

Both Majette and Johnson say that, in the past, the center had failed to forge a strong relationship with the community. Johnson, who joined in September from PAL’s Harlem Center, and her team, are trying to change this by visiting local schools and attending community meetings, in an effort to get the word out, and capture more sign-ups.

“We’re talking to parents and principals, and we’re working with the PTAs to set up a pick-up service,” Johnson said.

Joining the Center certainly isn’t expensive. Those in the after-school program, which runs from 3pm to 6pm, pay $5 for the entire school year. It appears excellent value for money. Students learn new skills, meet new friends, and get their homework done. Working parents, meanwhile, rest easy in knowing their kids and safe and in good hands.

For more information about the Webster Center, call (718) 733-6748 or visit www.palnyc.org