ATLANTIC CITY — When sports fell victim to budget cuts at her school, 12-year-old Brinaiya Kelsey lost her traditional after-school activity.
Friends told her about the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City’s after-school program, and now she attends daily for homework help, teen time and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math room activities.
“We’re doing electric circuits this week. And I learned a lot about cells,” she said.
The club’s after-school program is funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Center grant that could be in jeopardy.
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts all funding for the program, almost $1.2 billion that serves nearly 1.2 million children across the country, according to the national Afterschool Alliance.
Local operators say the cuts would be devastating for students and parents.
“This is an essential program for our area,” said Michelle Carrera, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. She said the funding, about $300,000 a year, makes up 23 percent of the club’s budget.
New Jersey receives about $26 million annually for centers operated by 57 school districts and organizations serving about 26,000 students. Many groups have multiple sites, and some operate over the summer.
Locally, programs operate in Atlantic City, Egg Harbor City, Pleasantville, Buena Regional, Bridgeton, Vineland, Millville and Commercial Township, according to Department of Education data.
The Trump administration said programs that were cut were not successful. Operators of the programs and national advocates say that’s just not true and they have the data to prove it.
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The Cumberland Empowerment Zone Corp. has operated four sites in the county for 13 years on a grant of about $300,000 per year. Executive Director Cindy Angelo said funding runs in five-year cycles. After the second cycle, the organization compiled data on students who had been in the program.
“We found 95 percent had graduated from high school or were still in school,” she said. “This is not child care. It’s an academic program. We monitor students’ grades. We will reach out to their teachers to see how we can help.”
The program also provides supervision during those crucial after-school hours when parents may still be at work.
“Losing this would be a devastating blow to our students and families,” said Josepha Penrose, supervisor of curriculum in Wildwood, which also hosts a program. “This does allow more parents to work knowing their children have a safe place to go after school.”
Penrose said their data also show that students in the program have better academic performance, better school attendance and fewer discipline problems than the overall school population.
Attorney Jennifer Webb McRae, of Vineland, said her son attended the program at the Landis School in Vineland. He is now a college freshman.
“As a busy, working mom, it gave me peace of mind knowing he was safe and busy doing constructive things,” she said. “It really helps working parents who can’t be home by 3:30 p.m.”
A typical day includes homework help, recreation time and enrichment activities ranging from art to STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math. The Boys & Girls Club has a separate STEM room where the students can do experiments.
Carrera said the Atlantic City program targets children in grades four through eight.
“It’s a critical time to make sure they build the skills they need for high school,” she said.
Kenyen Benton, 9, said painting is his favorite thing to do, but if he has homework, he always does that first. He is also learning computer keyboarding and likes doing experiments.
“I get to create and do things I’ve never done before here,” he said.
Students said they appreciate having teachers on site to help with homework.
“Some of them would really struggle if they didn’t get the extra help,” said teacher Donnita Steele, who also teaches at the New York Avenue School in Atlantic City.
Volunteer Karen Schwab works with younger children who clamor for her attention as she helps them with homework.
“This is a haven,” she said. “We help them, but here they can also be silly and play and just have someone to talk to.”
The national Afterschool Alliance is lobbying to save the funding.
“This proposal would devastate working families,” Jodi Grant, executive director of the alliance, said in a statement. “After-school programs keep kids safe, inspire them to learn and help working families.”