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COVID relief allows Decatur to launch free after-school classes

DPS Strategic Planning Executive Director Ashley Grayned: Attendance boomed once afterschool became free.

DECATUR — Decatur Public Schools has long wanted to offer classes before and after school. It took federal COVID-19 relief to make that happen.

When DPS tried to launch this optional, extended school day in the past, families had to pay. Now, thanks to COVID relief, it’s free.

“Three years ago, this priority bubbled to the top. We surveyed families and they said, ‘Yes, we want a before and after school program. Yes, our students would attend,’” says DPS Strategic Planning Executive Director Ashley Grayned.

Actual attendance rates were low though. Families found options that worked better on their paychecks and only about 50 students attended across multiple buildings, Grayned says.

When DPS re-launched the program as free this fall, participation boomed. Now, around 500 students show up each week.

Decatur has $50 million to spend … by 2024

Every week, pre-K through 8th graders stay at Decatur schools from sunup to sundown. They eat dinner, learn robotics and music, and get extra reading help, all for free.

The district is paying for the program with the third bucket of coronavirus relief – the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund (ESSER III).

Decatur Public Schools received about $50 million in the latest round of federal COVID-19 relief. The district only spends twice that amount — $100 million — in a typical year.

While ESSER III is almost a blank check for school districts to use as they need, they do have to show how the money addresses the problems of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grayned says the district hopes to address pandemic learning loss through the extended class day.

“Each student enrolled, we will be able to track how they’ve done, compared to students not enrolled, hopefully looking at students who attended over 70 percent of the year, you know, and not just on half days,” Grayned says.

Students spend 45 additional minutes a day on academic work aligned with the school’s curriculum, from reading to homework help. High schoolers, college students, teachers and assistant teachers staff the program.

DPS plans to spend 22 percent of its ESSER III funding on the extended day program and 64 percent on updating school buildings.

All of this federal relief has an end date though – September 2024. Grayned says if the program is shown to be effective, DPS will look for other public and private grants to pay for it.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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