Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

With a major winter storm bearing down on Kalamazoo in mid-November, the administrators of Communities in Schools had a dilemma. Should they cancel scheduled after-school programs because they didn't want school buses to be out on the roads after 6:30 p.m., when the storm was worsening? Or should they stay open because they knew their students' parents couldn't leave work, which meant children would likely end up at home unsupervised?

"We erred on the side of keeping the programs open," says Pam Kingery, executive director of the after-school program for disadvantaged kids at 15 sites in the southern Michigan school district.

This is not your normal child-care offering, the kind that fines parents for each minute past 6 p.m. or kicks families out if they have three or more late pickups. This is a program specifically designed to take pressure off low-income parents who are juggling unemployment or several low-paying jobs with erratic hours. These parents can't help their kids with homework and often have difficulty even feeding them.

"Our fantasy is the parent who is waiting for their children to walk in the door after school to have milk and cookies," Kingery says. "That left a very long time ago."

Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo is one of hundreds of CIS programs embedded in public schools throughout the country, each with the goal of filling gaps in the education of disadvantaged students. That may take the form of finding winter coats for poor kids so they don't miss school on cold days. Or, in Kalamazoo's case, it means giving extra help to struggling kids when the regular school day is over.

Kids in the Kalamazoo after-school program get help with their homework, tutoring if needed, a hot meal, and a bus ride home. This is every working parent's dream child-care situation. It fills in those odd hours after school but before the work day is done, and it uses that time to do away with the homework and meal chores that fill precious evening hours before bedtime.

There is a catch. The Kalamazoo program isn't available to middle-class parents, who generally have enough money to find other child-care options. At each Kalamazoo site, CIS executives team up with school principals and teachers to identify the students who are on an academic or behavioral cusp and invite them to take one of the after-school slots. "The kids we are providing this for are kids who are struggling in reading or math, who may have some behavioral issues, may have school attendance issues. We're trying to move the needle on those four areas," Kingery says.

In some cases, it's working. "My son went from being an average student to having a 3.5 GPA," says Glenda Shevitski, whose 11-year-old began the program this year. "It's absolutely amazing."

Without the bus ride home, the kids who benefit most from the Kalamazoo program wouldn't have been able to enroll. "Many of the kids who needed the program the most, their parents couldn't consistently provide them with the transportation," Kingery says. "The parents would say, 'Oh sure, I'll do that.' Then it would be, 'Well, I can only do that one day a week because gas is so expensive. Or my car broke down.' "

Many of the kids in the Kalamazoo program have at least one parent working multiple jobs, even if that parent doesn't work a lot of hours. Some of the kids are technically homeless. These living situations can make transportation schedules a nightmare, which the after-school program only partly rectifies with the school bus. Shevitski knows her son is better off than a lot of other kids. "A director from [the] program called and asked if we needed help with Thanksgiving. I said, 'No, we have food stamps. We're fine,' " she says.

Some of the children in the district receive all their meals at school. At Milwood Elementary School, which has partnered with CIS for seven years, parents can sign up for food packs to be sent home on the weekends. A local food bank comes in on Fridays and discreetly places the packets in these students' lockers. "Those kids really look forward to those food packs. If there is ever a time when maybe a child got missed, they start to panic," says Milwood Principal Sara Glendening.

These families' struggle for survival makes educating their kids difficult. The need for child care can make a parent's already dicey employment situation almost impossible. "There is a scarcity of child care for low-income women," says Helen Blank, director of child care and early learning at the National Women's Law Center. "We have irrational employment policies for moms and kids. We create very stressed conditions."

Since the 1996 welfare reform law eliminated public assistance entitlements for low-income families, recipients of any federal aid are required to work in some capacity. Because child care is one of the biggest barriers to employment for women in poverty, the law placed heavy emphasis on child-care subsidies for those families.

But since 2001, federal child-care money has been steadily shrinking. The primary source of funding for child care is the Child Care and Development Block Grant. This year, CCDBG was funded at $5.3 billion. In 2001, it had almost $1 billion more to distribute, in 2014 dollars, according to NWLC. Congress reauthorized the child-care assistance law shortly before Thanksgiving, but it did not authorize additional funding. The situation is essentially at a stalemate, which leaves out lots of parents. "We only serve one in six, and we've lost more than 300,000 since 2006," Blank says.

The Kalamazoo after-care program is funded through a different government entity, a competitive grant run through the Education Department that finances "21st century community learning centers" specifically aimed at academic enrichment for kids during nonschool hours. The Education Department distributes slightly more than $1 billion a year to about 50 programs such as the one in Kalamazoo.

The Kalamazoo program wouldn't exist without that federal grant, Kingery says, showcasing an unfortunate truth about child care—no matter what, somebody has to pay for it. Schools can't afford to provide such intensive services. And low-income parents—arguably the ones who need the help the most—can't pay for them, either.

The CIS officials know their after-school program is a just small step toward solving the tension between the financial constraints on low-income parents and their need for supportive child care. "It's not that we're looking to be heroes. We're not looking to prove that we can do something that nobody else can do," Kingery says. "We're looking for students who, with a modest amount of support, can get over the hump."

If "modest" means meals, tutoring, homework assistance, and a ride home, it hints at the vast cavity of need that programs like this one are trying to fill.

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