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A victim of the downturn

A drop in funding trims homework help for children at a Clearwater recreation center and introduces user fees.

By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
Published February 16, 2004

CLEARWATER - Self-assigned class helper Victoria Cecil walks over to a younger girl leaning dangerously sideways in a yellow plastic chair and demanding help with math homework.

After glancing at the textbook, Victoria reads the question aloud: "How can you tell without multiplying that 10 times eight doesn't equal 85?"

The 12-year-old pauses and looks around for the classroom teacher before answering her younger charge. "Um, I don't know how to help you without telling you the answer. You need to ask Miss M."

Miss M is Susan May, a Pinellas Technical Education Centers teacher who comes to the Martin Luther King Recreation Center four times a week to help kids with their homework, walking between the picnic-like tables, encouraging the children to spell neatly or use "mental math" instead of their fingers.

But while Miss M used to tutor 50 children in the "King's Kids" afterschool session, now there's only space for 25, and even those 25 have to pay to defray some of the program costs.

That's because the nonprofit group funding the program doesn't have enough cash to go around.

"The money isn't there, but the need is," said Judy Ganisin, vice president of community relations for the YWCA.

For 15 years, the YWCA has funded the King's Kids tutoring sessions at the recreation center. Typically, two teachers spent one-on-one time with elementary school kids, helping with homework from 2 to 6 p.m. every day. The kids usually got a fruit drink and a snack, like sliced apples with peanut butter.

While the United Way of Tampa Bay in 2002 completely funded King's Kids with $56,000, this year there's no money, not even for sliced apples and peanut butter.

United Way officials blame the economy.

"This goes back to the 2002 campaign," said Scott Meyers, vice president of strategic marketing for the United Way. "The money we received, 70 to 80 percent comes from workplace campaigns. Because of the poor economic climate, that campaign and other revenues did not reach the levels we'd hoped."

As a result, the two teachers have been reduced to one. Five days of afterschool help is down to four. And a program that once was free now charges children $2 a day for their own apples.

"When you look around citywide, you're seeing more and more of that because it costs more to do things," said Kevin Dunbar, Clearwater's director of parks and recreation. Dunbar's department had provided $150 to $200 a month for snacks, but not anymore.

"We have to come up with ways to fund," Dunbar said. "One of the most equitable ways to do that is to provide fees and charges so users of the program are helping to support that."

It's a shame, Ganisin said, because many of the children benefit from the extra academic support.

"Just last year, two-thirds of the kids in the program made honor roll," she said. "We know that what we're doing is good. That's why our board said, "This can't be.' "

This year, King's Kids received $10,000 from Progress Energy and $2,500 from Wachovia. An additional $2,000 is coming from private donors, Ganisin said.

Next year's funding remains uncertain. United Way is not sure how much money will be available, and YWCA officials say that cutting out the occasional apple slice is not an option for children who haven't eaten since 11:30 a.m.

"What we are seeing happen is they're not going to come to tutoring because parents can't afford it, and that just snowballs," said May, who receives $15 an hour for tutoring at the rec center. "These kids need help with their homework. Because they go to Curtis Fundamental, their standards are higher than at most schools."

Melissa Shackelford, a parent whose children are in the program, said she was concerned about the cut in the number of children the program could take.

"It was only the first 25 kids," said Shackelford, 33, a nursing assistant. "I have three kids that need to go in there."

Shackelford likes the program because the teacher watches over her children, ages 10, 9 and 7, and helps them with reading and math. By the time she gets off work, the kids more than likely have finished their homework.

On a typical day, children walk from school to the center, where they play games with other kids until it's their turn to be tutored. The teacher helps with their homework or gives them an assignment until their parents pick them up.

"It's really individualized help they are getting," May said.

Shackelford likes the program because it offers serious help.

"There are daily readings if the teacher didn't assign homework," Shackelford said. "They keep track of how they are doing in school."

She said the $2 fee is "reasonable," given that her children are getting results.

"I had to go to school to say that I didn't hear from the teacher," she said. "The teacher said (my son) was going good. She said that's why she didn't call."

Lois Bell, a teacher at San Jose Elementary who used to enroll her children in the King's Kids program, said it is needed.

"This is not wasted time," said Bell, who thinks the program should remain free. "Nowadays people work weird hours, so help with homework is a good thing."

Dunbar said scholarships are available for kids who can't afford the fee. Children who receive free and reduced lunches at school can qualify for either a $1 or 50-cent fee. Applications for those scholarships are available at most city facilities.

- Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 16, 2004, 01:31:39]


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