For members of the Rhode Island General Assembly, the 2020 session brings with it difficult decisions about budget priorities and challenges in funding key social service programs. As our lawmakers deliberate on how the government should fund such programs while staying within its means, stakeholders from across the state have unique ideas about where investment is needed the most.

Through decades of firsthand experience as five CEOs of the YMCAs of Rhode Island, we know that the work done by non-profit organizations like ours — promoting health in spirit, mind and body — is of vital importance and deserving of our leaders’ focus. A mission as broad as this one involves collaboration between dedicated organizations and well-funded public initiatives. This year, we feel that dedicated funding for before- and after-school programs should be a priority. These programs provide structure and guidance for children, many of whom, because of the need for both parents to work full-time, don’t have full supervision in the hours before and after school. With well-documented research showing how crucial out-of-school learning is to childhood development and the high demand among Rhode Island families, these programs need an increase in funding.

When it comes to the broad priorities of Rhode Island’s education system, the impact of before- and after-school programs is significant and should not be ignored. A 2019 study conducted by United Way of Rhode Island’s Rhode Island Afterschool Network (RIAN) showed that students in these programs demonstrate significant academic and behavioral improvements and higher in-school attendance. Those enrolled in programs focused in urban areas graduate from high school and are accepted into and enrolled in college at higher rates than their peers. Many programs allow students in grades 6-12 to enroll in specialized courses that are tailored to their needs, either with employment-focused courses for students preparing to enter the work force or opportunities to begin earning valuable college credits.

Most of all, these programs promote equity in our state and are a critical resource for families in low-income communities. With access to high-quality after-school programming, parents who work long shifts to support their families and cannot provide full supervision at the end of the school day have peace of mind knowing that their children are not only being watched over, but challenged. Programs before the school day ensure that children arrive at school safely, properly nourished and prepared for a full day of learning. While organizations like the YMCA serve these communities in partnership with public initiatives like the Child Care Assistance Program, which helps 15% of our enrolled children statewide receive high-quality child care, funding for out-of-school programs is equally critical. We know that the tireless work of childhood development must be done across all age groups and does not stop when the school bell rings.

There is significant demand among parents who know what a spot in a high-quality program would mean for their children. Thanks again to work from the RIAN, we know that the enrollment numbers could more than double to over 72,000 if all interested families were accommodated. In 2018, schools and community organizations in Rhode Island received $2.7 million in state funding for these programs, despite requesting $7.3 million. With the demand from parents so high, all that is missing is a strong infusion of funding from our state leaders.

The interest in before- and after-school programs is exploding, and the state can do more to accommodate these families. For programs already serving Rhode Island, the ripple effect on the state’s school children and future workforce is well-documented. When we invest in our children, we are investing in the future. We hope lawmakers give serious consideration to providing the funding necessary to extend access to high-quality before- and after-school programs to families of all backgrounds across the state.

Maureen Fitzgerald, Shauna Lewis, Mike Miller, Steve O’Donnell and Charles Clifford

The writers are the CEOs of the Ocean Community YMCA, Smithfield YMCA, Newport County YMCA, YMCA of Greater Providence and YMCA of Pawtucket, respectively.

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