05/18/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated May 21, 2012

Bloomberg's Budget Cuts And The After-School Crisis

Some of the poems were about love and some were about clouds, but what really mattered about the P.S. 63 poetry reading on Wednesday night was the time.

A decade ago most of the 8- and 9- and 10-year-old poets in attendance might have been home playing video games or getting into trouble or doing nothing at all. But that was before New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration built the country's largest after-school system -- a system that critics say the mayor is now about to dismantle.

Two weeks ago, Bloomberg reduced the current budget for after-school and early-childhood services by $70 million. According to advocates for those programs and city council members, he would need to restore those funds and an additional $100 million to keep the programs open come September. Without funding, after-school programs could lose seats for 31,800 children. Advocates are hoping the city will restore some of the money by the time the city council passes the final budget in June.

In the meantime, teachers, administrators, and parents citywide are worrying what those losses might mean to students, their families and neighborhoods.

At P.S. 63 on New York's Lower East Side, after-school worker Angel Alvarado, 20, offered one possibility. Asked if he sees a difference between students who attend after-school programs and those who don't, he offered this response. "I know somebody from childhood personally who didn't go to after-school and now he's no longer with us. He went the route of the streets. So yes, there's a difference."

While that might be the worst-case scenario, plenty of data support the common-sense notion that teens are most likely to commit crimes, fall victim to crimes, drink or do drugs between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., the hours after they get out of school and before their parents get home from work. Studies demonstrate that after-school programs keep kids safer, and that kids who participate in those programs fare better in school than those that don't attend.

Not all after-school programs are equal, however. As one advocacy group put in a paper on the subject, "Quality matters."

And that may explain why, seven years ago, Bloomberg became one of the country's most prominent champions of high-quality after-school programs by starting Out-of-School Time, or OST, a citywide after-school system in which individual providers are required to help students meet specific educational, social, and nutritional goals. Alumni of New York's after-school programs in the '80s and '90s might be surprised by what they'd find at a typical after-school activity today. Gone are the unstructured afternoons of apple-juice and freeze-tag. At P.S. 63, part of the afternoon is devoted to homework help, and the rest to hands-on educational activities organized around a specific theme.

The theme changes daily: Mondays are for science projects, Tuesdays are for team-building, and so on. After-school workers now receive at least 30 hours of training each year, and often confer with "day-school" teachers at the beginning of their shifts. Many, like Alvarado, started out as students in the after-school programs where they now work, and hope to become full-time teachers themselves.

The blue-shirted staff members at P.S. 63 are employed by University Settlement, a group that has been running after-school programs of one kind or another since the Mayor William Russell Grave administration in the 1880s. Established in 1886, University Settlement is one of the country's oldest community organizations, an outgrowth of the settlement movement that began in England during the industrial revolution and the dawn of urban poverty.

When families on the Lower East Side didn't have showers, University Settlement ran a public bath; when residents mainly spoke Yiddish and Italian, it offered English classes. It's hard to say exactly when the group began calling its after-school programs "after-school," but it was among the first to embrace the mayor's push for quality in the mid-2000s.

Michael Zisser, the head of the group, said of the six city-funded programs run by University Settlement, only two have received funding for next year. The program could lose slots for more than 400 children.

Many advocates, like Zisser, find the cuts puzzling. "Why would a mayor who emphasized education essentially choose to eliminate three hours of the day?" said Zisser.

Just this month, the mayor and his education chief, Dennis Walcott, joined a coalition of advocates and elected officials calling for schools around the country to add more classroom hours. "This is what we do," said Amy Mereson, a University Settlement director. "And yet we don't have the money."

In a statement to the Huffington Post, Samantha Levine, a spokesperson for the mayor, cited the "fiscal realities" that have shriveled municipal budgets nationwide since the start of the recession. But many advocates retort that the city's economy is healthier than it's been in years, and that its after-school programs are important not just to students but to the city's current economy.

If the cuts go through, University Settlement could lose up to 45 jobs filled by low-income young people who live and spend money in the neighborhoods where the group offers programs. "We bring up young people from the community, we train the hell out of them," said Mereson. "This is hugely important from an economic perspective."

And then there's the perspective of the parents. Darlene Rodriguez, a young mother with two girls in the University Settlement program, stood in the back of the auditorium Wednesday night while a young poet talked about clouds.

"I'm a student, my husband works," she said. If the program closes, she said, she'd have to stop going to school. "There's no one I could leave my kids with. My family lives in Florida."