Saturday, May 25, 2024

A Cambridge Community Schools “cultural cooking class” program. (Photo: City of Cambridge Community Schools)

The city’s Community Schools program, which provides after-school care to about 725 children, is serving many more black children this school year because it instituted a lottery for seats and gave priority to lower-income applicants, a program official reported last month. The priority system also resulted in more participation by low- and moderate-income families, a win for equity and inclusion, said Michelle Farnum, the Department of Human Services Programs assistant director for children, youth and families.

Yet figures presented by Farnum to the city’s Human Services Committee on Oct. 14 showed that 299 children remained on a waiting list for the popular program (dropping to 284 as of Oct. 30), a reminder that the city hasn’t made much progress toward offering spots to all who need them. And 41 children waiting were in the high-priority category because of their lower family income.

City officials have pledged to offer after-school programs to any child in Cambridge, and city councillors have pushed the city to make good on the promise. The city continues to point to staffing shortages as causing the lack of seats, and now city officials said they need a yearlong study to figure out how to make improvements.

Hundreds of parents have signed letters to city officials – one in the spring of 2021 and one in May – seeking more capacity.

Cambridge Kid Help, organized by two Cambridge mothers of young kids to push for universal after-school programs, had to file a Freedom of Information Act request in July to get information on and results of the Community Schools lottery for this school year. (Most of the response they got, including data tables, has since been posted by the city on the Department of Human Services Programs website. The department has continued to post monthly updates).

Frustrated parents

Parents have been frustrated by the persistent lack of transparency as well as lack of seats. Cambridge Kid Help organizers Amanda Beatty and Eugenia Schraa met with newly appointed City Manager Yi-An Huang on July 19, before he took office. In a slide presentation, they called for “immediate action” to guarantee seats to low-income families and “ideally, middle-income families,” if the city could not provide spots to all those who need them; more efforts to hire staff; more openness; and giving attention to “all the families [the program] serves” as well as working to understand “the most vulnerable families, without speaking for them.”

They pointed out that total private and public after-school capacity fell far short of the need – 1,297 spots versus a projected elementary school enrollment of 3,976 kids this school year. The Community Schools program is the largest provider and continues to offer far fewer seats than the number of applicants, they said. Despite the priority that started being given to low-income students last year, some of those students still ended up on the waiting list, they said.

Beatty said recently that the response to their requests “generally has been dismal.” The Community Schools program hasn’t hired more staff to open up more slots and “there remain priority children on waitlists,” she said in an email. Three hundred children are still on the waitlist, she said. “DHSP isn’t sufficiently serving the community,” she said, referring to the Department of Human Service Programs.

What’s behind the lack of seats

In her report to the Human Services Committee last month, Farnum blamed “a significant staffing crisis” for the lack of seats. “We have space but not the staff to use it,” she said. The city is offering $24 to $26 per hour for part-time Community Schools instructors, her presentation said. The program has also offered $500 retention and referral bonuses, sought candidates among school employees and public housing residents, and made other outreach efforts. The program could add close to 115 more spots with enough staff, it said. Her figures showed that that wouldn’t be enough to serve all the 284 children on the waitlist, though.

Focusing on what she called “equity,” Farnum said the lottery numbers this year showed a big increase in applications and placement of families earning less than 65 percent of the area median income, or $91,000 for a four-person household (specifics for different family sizes are here). About one-third of applicants fell into that category as of August, compared with a previous figure, without the lottery and priority system, of about 12 percent, Farnum said.

Since any on-time priority applicant “would get a seat,” Farnum said, 44 percent of placement offers went to lower-income families as of late September. After the city continued to let families apply to the waiting list, and to offer some waiting-list families a seat as spots opened, the proportion of “active offers” to lower-income families fell to about 40 percent as of Oct. 30, the latest update.

“We wanted 40 percent, we got 44 percent,” Farnum told the committee, referring to earlier figures. With the priority system, applications from black families also increased, she said. Figures showed that 82 percent of black applicants fell into the priority category, compared with 17 percent of white applicants. The situation wasn’t the same for other nonwhite families and demographic categories, though; 30 percent of Asian and East Indian applicants were lower-income, and income levels of families identifying as Hispanic were split more evenly – 54 percent lower-income and 45 percent non-priority. Muddying the picture, 16 percent of applicants chose not to identify their race or ethnicity; of those, only 29 percent were lower-income.

Eliminating the divide

In addition, the size of waiting lists for programs at some schools – applicants can select their top three choices – vary among schools, and some schools have more lower-income children on their waiting list. For example, 54 children are waiting for a seat at the Dr. Martin Luther King school, eight in the priority category. The Peabody school has eight priority children out of 36 on the waiting list, and at King Open there are 11 lower-income children out of 25 awaiting a seat. Meanwhile, at Fletcher Maynard Academy, where almost 53 percent of regular-school-day students are black compared with 23 percent overall in Cambridge public schools, there is only one child on its after-school waiting list, not in the priority category. Fletcher Maynard has one of the smallest after-school programs, with 46 seats, and 44 of the children who were offered seats chose that as their top site.

The city had been trying to increase “equity” in the program for several years without success, Farnum said. “The past few years we looked at who was enrolled [in Community Schools] versus who was enrolled in the schools,” she said. Overall enrollment of low-income children in the after-school program was about 12 percent “while it was 40 percent in the typical school,” she said. “There was a great divide even in the schools where it took place.”

Managers tried to eliminate the divide by offering more scholarships and improving transportation, but “nothing moved the dial” until the program instituted a lottery system and gave priority to lower-income children. “We found out that the biggest bang for your buck wasn’t a scholarship, it was how you were enrolled,” she said.

Without a lottery, applicants were offered spots on a first-come, first-served basis, giving an advantage to families in the know, she said. There were no waiting lists because “in the past if you didn’t show up you didn’t know about it,” she said. But after the disruption of Covid-19, the program was hit with a big increase in demand.

There will be little shrinkage in the waiting lists from now on, the Community Schools program said in a statement on its website this month.” While we will continue to manage our waiting pool and any available open seats that may occur, we believe this process has significantly slowed down and that the majority of the seats in Community Schools Afterschool Program are actively occupied,” it said. “If a seat does open up, we will offer the seat to the next child on the lottery list who meets the criteria of the open seat.”