Trump budget would cut Valley after-school programs

With Rio Grande Valley school districts standing to lose millions of dollars in federal funding for after-school programs, local educators are beginning to join the chorus of concerns that have chimed in nationally about President Donald Trump’s controversial budget proposal.

The president’s $1.2 billion slashing of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program would eliminate the grant opportunities it provides to school districts, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations nationwide.

Up to 1,700 students are served by the program in San Benito alone.

Such grants afford staffing and resources to help provide after-school education, summer learning programs and enrichment activities for the 1.6 million students that the program serves in the United States.

These are students, according to U.S. Department of Education data, who are largely Hispanic (36 percent) and are often products of high-poverty, low-performing schools. They range from pre-kindergarteners to high school seniors.

Demographics further show that 30 percent of students in the program are African-American, 22 percent are white, 73 percent participate in the federal free or reduced price lunch program, and 16 percent have limited English proficiency.

In Texas, the program funds the TEA-administered Afterschool Centers on Education (ACE), which has awarded grants to six Valley school districts. Receiving funding for three years are the San Benito, Mercedes, Donna, Edinburg and IDEA school districts, and Weslaco ISD was awarded funding for five years.

San Benito CISD After School Program Director Jack Garcia estimated an impact of $1 million.

Garcia was assertive on Tuesday in responding to the Trump administration’s defense of the budget, which suggests that the program hasn’t proven academically effective.

“Yes, it is about academics because we want to better the students, but there’s a social aspect to the program as well,” Garcia said before confirming that up to 1,700 students are serviced by the program in San Benito alone. “These kids are exposed to things that they would never be exposed to, and the impact down the line is significant. So it would affect thousands of people in South Texas alone if it is cut, and my feeling on this is that it would have a big impact on the Valley area specifically.”

What’s more, Garcia pointed to data from the Afterschool Alliance showing that the program helped one in three students improve their Math and Language Arts grades.

Seven of 10 improved their homework completion and class participation, and two of three improved their classroom behavior.

“The ACE program in our district has been a great benefit to our schools, students and community,” Elizabeth Alaniz, director of professional learning for Weslaco ISD, said of the program’s impact. “Students have been nourished academically, nutritionally and co-curricular.”

Alaniz also confirmed that Weslaco ISD would lose about $8 million in program funding under Trump’s budget; Mercedes ISD Superintendent Dr. Daniel Treviño identified more than $5 million that would be in jeopardy at his district.

Citing the program’s instructional support proving so effective that it’s helped improve test scores in Mercedes, Treviño made a case for the grant money being well-spent.

“It certainly has helped academically,” Treviño said before listing physical education, music, computer technology and arts and crafts as additional components of the program. “So those are all programs that could be affected if these afterschool programs are literally cut.”

The superintendent further explained that the Mercedes school district may work to absorb some of the expenses if the program is indeed axed.

“On the public education side, we will continue to deliver a quality education for all our students,” Treviño added.

Alaniz shared similar sentiments with regard to maintaining program operations, which services 1,100 students in grades K-5 in Weslaco.

“We are currently monitoring the impact that President Trump’s proposed budget would have on the ACE program,” she said. “Regardless of the decision, Weslaco ISD will continue to strive to assist our students the best way that we can.”

For Congressman Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who in the past has not shied from expressing criticism of Trump’s policies, the proposal to slash after school funding is “appalling.”

“President Trump’s proposed elimination of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program would be severely damaging to students and families in my district,” Vela said in a statement. “These funds help communities across Texas — including Weslaco ISD — improve academic performance and graduation rates through academic, youth development and family enrichment activities.

“In addition to providing academic opportunities to underserved students, 21st Century Community Learning Centers play a key role in providing meals and after school care to students whose parents work long hours in order to provide for their families. Investing in children, in their development and in their future should be a priority for this country.

“It is appalling that this president chooses to cut vital and proven programs, but prioritizes a ridiculous border wall that has not shown to contribute to border security.”