After-School Aftershocks

First they brought out the little children. A trio of tiny violinists, hidden from the audience by the sheets of music before them, was followed by two Mexican dance segments, a "Walk Like an Egyptian" line routine, country cloggers and a student-created miniplay.

The crowd applauded loudly, educators beamed and children smiled shyly. But this was no typical school performance night. These kids were just the opening act for the main event at Blackshear Elementary that June 16 evening.

School personnel and parents from schools throughout the district were there to appeal for more help from Houston City Council and the Houston Independent School District for their after-school programs. And while the presence of Councilmembers Felix Fraga, John Castillo and Chris Bell was important, their pledges of continued support were expected.

No, the man of the hour, the man of mystery, was HISD Superintendent Rod Paige. Would he show up? Would he answer questions? Would he care?

All 420 of the chairs in the audience had people in them. Another estimated 80 people stood lining the walls. It was packed.

Paige got on stage, sitting across the floor from the three grouped councilmembers. Although there were other people seated there, he seemed isolated. His face was set in serious lines. He didn't chat. He didn't smile. One of the several speakers began her testimony of why the after-school program had been so crucial to so many kids -- and Paige got on his cell phone.

Things weren't looking so good.

The meeting at Blackshear culminated an effort by The Metropolitan Organization, a coalition of about 40 church congregations, and the so-called Alliance Schools in HISD, which have worked together to bring after-school programs to some of the district's elementary and middle schools. Besides providing a safe place for students to stay, the programs provide enrichment classes offering academic and cultural opportunities for children.

This rare cooperative funding effort between the City of Houston and HISD began with a $100,000 grant from the city for an after-school pilot project at 11 schools in 1997. The Council, under then-mayor Bob Lanier, approved the money only after pressure by groups, including TMO. Mayor Lee Brown pledged more than $1 million for the program once he assumed his position and had his point man on education, Leonel Castillo, try to help sort out the paperwork problems threatening to scuttle all the good intentions.

Still, problems continued. This past year the program was funded to the tune of $1.3 million, at 42 HISD schools, four Spring Branch and two Alief ISD schools. It served more than 38,000 students. However, most of the schools didn't receive their money until November because of delays in negotiating the contracts, said Margarita Aguilar. The kindergarten teacher and after-school coordinator at Briscoe Elementary has been one of the key people working to raise awareness about the program. It was hard to get parents to switch to a new program in November, and many schools weren't able to begin until the second semester.

Those assembled want this to stop. Leaders from the Alliance Schools Initiative, with a dedicated purpose of involving parents, congregations, businesses and voluntary associations in schools, have been empowered by their TMO training sessions. At the meeting, speakers and audience members alike made it clear they are ready to take more control of decisions involving their children. The stalled contract negotiations made no sense last year and make even less for this coming fall, when everyone knows the programs are in place and ready to proceed, several speakers said. They are out of patience with inefficiencies.

Alliance school leaders want to make sure City Council votes on the after-school funding by July 1 so it can be ready for consideration by the HISD school board by July 18, in time to go back to City Council for final approval later in July, TMO leader Joe Higgs said.

In fact, Mayor Brown has proposed that the program be expanded to $2.5 million, which would include previously untapped general revenue funds. It's unknown if he has enough votes to do this; traditionally, Councilmembers Rob Todd and Bruce Tatro have opposed city involvement in the program, and others wishing to appear fiscally conservative may join them.

The call for the "rally" at Blackshear in the Third Ward came after a series of meetings TMO sponsored with school leaders. Everyone knew about the problem in getting start-up funding on time. The people working with the programs were asked what else was going wrong, and two answers were universal:

* Too much reporting, often duplicative for both the city and the school district. The process must be streamlined.

* No money for snacks for the hungry children. Community Development Block Grants were funding the after-school effort and cannot be used to buy such things as snacks.

One school solved the snack problem by going to the Houston Food Bank. Others went to Sam's Club and bought in bulk with money they raised from their parent-teacher organizations.

Overlooked was the fact that federal law changed last October and snack money is available under the new federal free meal program. The Alliance Schools want to make sure Houston applies for the snack money for the next school year.

As parent Jovita Gomez said: "We must have the best schools, best teachers, best parents. And parents, we cannot accept last for our children. I repeat, we cannot accept last for our children." The crowd roared.

By the end of the meeting, Felix Fraga had pledged to help the program get its snacks. John Castillo agreed about the need for streamlining. "We had money left over that should have been in the schools," he acknowledged. And Chris Bell, who said one of his best accomplishments as a city councilmember has been the help he gave the after-school program, said, "We will get the money earlier to the program, because we know how important that is."

Bus driver Juana Huerta was the one who finally got Paige to smile. She said when the after-school program was first introduced at her school she didn't think it would take her too long to make an extra after-school run of children to their homes.

The first day she was astonished at the number of kids, not only those waiting to be picked up by her, but others waiting for their parents. "There were 60 or more children in my bus. These children were there every day," she exclaimed.

After several weeks of transporting children, she complained a little to her husband. He told her, "You fought for this program -- now you have it," she said to general laughter. He asked her if it was worth it, and she concluded it was.

"Before this program a lot of these children did not want to get up on my bus because they had to go to the back of the houses" to wait for someone to come home hours later. "Now these children get off of the bus running. They're not afraid anymore!"

And finally Rod Paige was making what sounded like spontaneous remarks. The after-school program is important in no little part, he said, so that the children can see there are adults who care about them.

"We think the most important part of the after-school program is for the children to interact with the quality adults," Paige continued. "See, because if they're not there, they are likely to interact with people who are not quality."

He pledged that Faye Bryant, his deputy superintendent for school administration, would stay involved. Then he said he wanted to stay part of the process as well.

Everyone whooped and cheered. Paige looked like he might be enjoying himself.

It may not last, but for the moment, it was a triumph.

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret_downing@

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