Robert Gehrke: Salt Lake’s after-school mess is a strain on parents, and it should be starting a dialogue

Robert Gehrke

Susan Montschiedler went online to sign her son up for the after-school program at Ensign Elementary the very morning registration opened.

Just like the prior two years, she ended up on the waitlist, but she had a good spot — No. 3 — and when she called the district before the school year started she was told not to worry, her third-grader would probably make it in by the first or second week of the year.

It wasn’t until she read in the newspaper about the shortage of spots that she realized she was in trouble.

The Salt Lake City School District’s after-school program is in crisis — and it seems to be getting worse. This year, nearly 500 fewer children are participating.

Why? Well, federal funding and grants for the program have been shrinking, straining the budget. On top of that, Sandra Buendia, the district’s executive director of educational equity and student support, told me it has proven to be a real challenge to find people willing to work as an after-school counselor — the pay isn’t great, starting at $10 per hour, and the work is limited to three hours a day.

The counselor shortage is getting even more severe, as my colleague Courtney Tanner reported last week, with seven staffers quitting in one day, leaving a total of 24 vacancies. Fewer counselors obviously means the program can handle fewer students — and that means headaches for parents like Montschiedler.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the district did a poor job letting parents know about the shortage.

After finding waitlists at some of the other after-school options Montschiedler and her husband explored, they eventually got their son into Camp Wild-Life.

I’ve heard from numerous working parents in the city that they have been scrambling to find alternative care or have been leaving work to pick up their child. It’s especially difficult for single parents or those whose jobs aren’t conducive to leaving for an hour to shuttle a kid.

The whole thing has turned into a bit of a nightmare. Several school board members are looking to the city to help alleviate the staffer shortage.

By the way, it’s surprising that we are in the midst of Salt Lake City’s mayoral race and there is a prime opportunity to demonstrate vision and leadership, and neither Luz Escamilla nor Erin Mendenhall has uttered a peep about the current situation.

Escamilla’s silence is particularly surprising, since her platform touts a commitment to “enhance our current evidence-based, high-quality, after-school programs to ensure the welfare and education of our children outside of school hours.”

Buendia said the district is constantly hiring group leaders and actively trying to recruit high school and college students. It’s also reassessing how it communicates with parents to ensure they aren’t surprised by a dearth of after-school availability in the future.

Part of the solution seems obvious: If the district isn’t paying enough to make the job appealing, pay after-school counselors more. Some quick math shows that all it would take to give the 138 employees a $2 an hour raise is $145,000. That’s really not that much when you think about it.

Right now, parents pay $4 an hour — up to $12 a day — to put their kids in the program. Raising that by just 50 cents an hour for the 1,700 kids in the program would bring in nearly $450,000 over the course of a year.

Sure, a lot of low-income kids qualify for waivers, so their parents don’t pay. But even if just a third of the parents pay the extra $7.50 a week, it works out.

“The aftercare the district offers is so cheap,” Montschiedler said. “I would be willing to pay one-and-a-half times what I pay now. If paying people is the problem in getting them to do these things, then charge more.”

Beyond Salt Lake City’s immediate problem, this should spark a bigger discussion about what can be done to expand after-school offerings broadly. In nearly 70% of Salt Lake City households with school-age children, all of the parents in the household work, according to Census data. Statewide, the figure is 64%.

We talk about wanting to remove obstacles for women to succeed in the workforce, but more often than not, it’s still the mother who sacrifices a career in the interest of childcare.

I’m not unbiased when it comes to the value of after-school programs. My daughter works at a program in the Granite District, and I’ve seen how important it is to these students — a large percentage of whom are refugees.

It’s not just a glorified babysitting service. The program gives students a safe place to go after school; instead of watching TV or playing video games, they get help with their English skills and math; and they get a meal before they go home at the end of the day.

Numerous academic studies show the benefits of these sorts of programs — students in after-school programs see improved grades, exhibit better classroom behavior, are less likely to drop out, experience lower incidences of drug use and criminal behavior, and are less likely to be obese.

Not to mention that these programs enable parents to work, which is good for the family and makes our communities more productive.

It is stunning to me that we haven’t adopted full-day kindergarten statewide. That is an argument for another day.

In the short term, Salt Lake City needs to come to terms with how it can sustain and eventually expand its after-school offerings. But in the long view, we should start having a serious dialogue about how to expand after-school options statewide.