Murphy's Law

Year after year, Murphy school district officials watched their students die in a hail of violence. They decided to take matters into their own hands.

A New Times examination of programs in the more than a dozen school districts working in areas with the highest rates of juvenile crime bears Leyba out ("Net Loss," September 16).

The survey, conducted over the summer, revealed significant disparities in available programs, and a haphazard patchwork of inconsistent funding supporting them. The patchwork reflects the prevailing lack of public-policy focus about what communities and children need.

Schools in impoverished areas tend to rely exclusively on outside sources of funds and services to run their programs, if they have them at all. Few districts can say how many children are involved in those programs, or how much the programs cost.

Clay McAllester, principal at Kuban School.
Clay McAllester, principal at Kuban School.
Virginia Alcocer, principal at Garcia School.
Paolo Vescia
Virginia Alcocer, principal at Garcia School.

Several districts in troubled neighborhoods -- notably the Roosevelt Elementary, Wilson Elementary and Cartwright Elementary school districts -- could not provide any substantive information about their schools' programs.

The number and quality of available programs vary enormously. Some schools have extracurricular "no-cut" sports programs that involve many children. Others have only "cut" sports where limited numbers of children play only if they can make the team.

Ryan Johnson, a senior policy analyst at the Morrison Institute of Public Policy, recently completed a study of after-school and nontraditional school-hour programs as part of the Violence Prevention Initiative, an effort by numerous local governments and private organizations to increase funding and programming for violence prevention in Arizona. He says the situation with after-school programs is a complex and confusing mix of "the haves, have-nots, and the piece-it-togethers."

"Most of the schools I've talked to are the piece-it-togethers," he says. "They make things happen somehow. They go to the community. They ask for 5,000 bucks from some business. Jerry Colangelo out of nowhere drops them a bunch of school uniforms. They rob the field-trip budget. They ask teachers to volunteer. And somehow or other they manage to pull it off. Others have an abundance of programs."

Most, but not all, of the inequities boil down to money.

The Kyrene Elementary School District, a perennial example of a well-funded local school system, bordering Chandler and south Tempe, has a full menu of after-hours programs supported primarily by fees paid by parents. District officials say they provide scholarships for children whose families can't afford the fees.

Less affluent districts, like Murphy, Phoenix Elementary, Isaac and Alhambra, scramble to keep programs afloat. They rely heavily on grants and other outside help.

City officials and community leaders say that some schools resist hosting or developing extensive after-hours programs because administrators simply haven't embraced them.

This year, Maryvale High School, in the Phoenix neighborhood with the Valley's highest rate of juvenile crime, refused an offer from the Phoenix Youth at Risk Foundation for a program that works with troubled youngsters over the course of the school year. The foundation raised the $50,000 to operate the program; all the high school had to do was provide a room for weekly meetings, and allow a teacher or counselor to attend the three-day program orientation.

A spokesman for the Maryvale school says the school wants the program but simply couldn't implement it this year. The foundation gave it to Camelback High School instead.

In 1997, the Arizona Legislature approved a tax credit for people who contribute to after-school programs. The credit allows a deduction of up to $200 to public schools and $500 to private schools.

But many educators say that the tax credit may only magnify the inequities between schools in wealth areas and those in low-income neighborhoods. State documents show that in 1998, the first year the credit was allowed, several schools in the Kyrene elementary school district each received more in contributions than all of the schools in the Murphy and Isaac districts combined.

ASU's Johnson says many after-hours programs depend on creative financing and budgeting. Often, to support them, school administrators have to rob other parts of the school budgets, and rely on volunteers and special grants.

By any measure, the Murphy district exemplifies a "have not" school that, through aggressive scrambling for funds and programs, has turned itself into a "have."

Donofrio says that scramble never ends. This year is the last of the five-year grant that pays for the Boys and Girls Club at Garcia School.

"Unless we pull another rabbit out of our hat, that program could go away," he says. "All I'm going to tell them [Boys and Girls Club officials] is that this has been a model program. But I can't spend district money on it. I just don't have it."

Jemeille Ackourey of the Boys and Girls Clubs says her organization won't "fold up shop and say our commitment is done."

"I can guarantee that's not going to happen. But as far as what our game plan is for next year, we do not have one. We're going to have to write grants and work with Safe Haven to find more funds."

Murphy's school-as-community-center model clearly isn't for everyone. Traditionalists view it as too much social work, and a distraction from the real role of educators and schools.

Deborah Dillon, education program coordinator for the City of Phoenix, says that part of the problem many schools have with taking on all sorts of extracurricular matters is "they're not evaluated on how many after-school or anti-gang or anti-teen-pregnancy programs they have."

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