State Mistake Cuts 21st Century Programs Off at the Knees in Mississippi

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Photos courtesy of Operation Shoestring

Operation Shoestring, a Jackson, Mississippi, nonprofit that provides after-school programs in high-poverty low-income schools, is among 21st Century Community Leaning Center grantees who will not see their grants this year because of a mistake in the Mississippi Department of Education.

Operation Shoestring in Jackson, Mississippi, was all set to open a new after-school program for 45 to 50 students at Rowan Middle School this fall. The nonprofit already operates after-school programs serving more than 250 kids at two elementary schools.

In mid-August the axe fell — 20 percent of its budget disappeared.

Operation Shoestring was among after-school providers who learned that, due to a mistake in the Mississippi Department of Education where three employees  miscalculated the disbursement of federal 21st Century funds, the state cannot pay $9 million in grant money slated to go to providers this school year.

The mistake has had a “colossal impact” across the state, said Robert Langford, executive director of Operation Shoestring. 21st Century funding is the only federal funding source dedicated exclusively to out-of-school time programs.

The state Department of Education estimated that as many as three-fourths of the 29,000 Mississippi kids in 21st Century-funded after-school programs could be impacted. Programs that were in years two and three of a five-year 21st Century grant would not receive their funding this school year.

Mississippi is a mostly rural, high-poverty state with many low-performing schools. Langford said he has talked to directors of other programs impacted by this error, who mostly say they’re still trying to figure out what to do. And many of them have fewer resources than Operation Shoestring, he said.

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Ninety-six percent of third-graders served by Operation Shoestring's out-of-school time program passed the third-grade reading test in the 2014-15 school year, according to the organization. The overall pass rate for the two elementary schools the organization serves, Galloway and Brown Elementary, was 74 percent and 85 percent respectively, according to the state Department of Education.

Across the nation, 21st Century after-school programs provide academic support and after-school enrichment to kids whose families are low income. They allow parents to stay on the job in the afternoons. Programs like Operation Shoestring give kids in high-poverty schools a broader educational experience, Langford said. They go on field trips, explore arts and culture and their parents have peace of mind in the afternoons, he said.

When Langford learned of the state error in mid-August, he called an emergency meeting of Operation Shoestring’s board and staff. To deal with the crisis, the organization cut out the planned middle school program and the middle school coordinator job. Other staff members had their salaries cut.

Langford was able to get a one-time emergency donation that allowed the after-school program at Galloway Elementary School to continue, but the program is not at full capacity. The lost 21st Century funding amounts to $250,000 this year, but the full five-year grant was to have paid an additional $450,000 during the next three years.

Across the state, impacted programs also include numerous Boys & Girls Clubs. The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Mississippi Delta opened two weeks late and with fewer students. A much-lauded STEM program known as SR1 is scrambling to find funds.

Operation Shoestring has also been leading the effort in Mississippi to establish a statewide after-school network. Mississippi is one of the few states that does not have such an organization, which helps after-school providers improve the quality of their programs, gain partners and leverage funding, according to national advocates like Afterschool Alliance.

Initially the state Department of Education said it was talking with the U.S. Department of Education, through which 21st Century funding comes, to figure out how to minimize the impact of this error on after-school providers.

But Patrice Guilfoyle, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, said Thursday that the conversation was not going to result in any additional funding.

An internal audit is going on, said Patrice Guilfoyle. “That is something that is currently being worked on.”

The department won’t know what new processes to put in place until the audit is complete, she said.