President Clinton has announced plans to triple funding for the federal government’s after-school grants program, from its current level of $200 million to $600 million in fiscal year 2000.

Called 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the program gives money to rural and inner-city public school districts to fund after-hours, in-school learning programs–and many districts are taking advantage of the grants to build or improve their technology infrastructure.

Clinton unveiled his plan in a White House ceremony Jan. 7 as part of a series of announcements leading up to his Jan. 19 State of the Union address and the proposal of his fiscal year 2000 budget in February. He also proposed that schools with programs in place to end social promotion be given extra consideration for the grants.

The program is one of the more popular–and less controversial–education initiatives supported by the president. It focuses on the needs of children who would otherwise be left unattended during after-school hours, when drug and alcohol use and criminal activity among teens are most likely to occur.

“On any given day when school lets out, tens of millions of working parents look nervously at the clock, hoping and praying their children will be okay,” Clinton said. “With quality after school [programs]…students learn their lessons in the schoolhouse, not in the street.”

A huge need

The program helps schools expand the learning opportunities for children in a safe, drug-free, and supervised environment once the school day is over. Funds can be used to provide a variety of activities, including technology education programs.

Introduced in 1997, 21st Century Community Learning Centers currently serves 190,000 children at 800 schools in 46 states and the District of Columbia. The proposed expansion would benefit an additional one million students, Clinton said.

The program’s popularity was demonstrated last year when 2,000 school districts applied for 286 grants.

“Clearly, there’s a huge need,” Joyce Shortt, assistant director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College, told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s a real groundswell of support for these programs.”

A survey funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation last August indicated that 80 percent of those polled were willing to let federal or state tax money fund after-school programs, even if it meant their own taxes would go up. The survey of 800 registered voters had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

Building lifelong learning

Among other things, 21st Century Community Learning Center funds can be used to purchase technology equipment, according to Robert Stonehill, director of the state and local services division of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Resources and Instruction.

Applicants must choose from a list of 13 program activities the grant will support, and technology-based learning is the most popular. Eighty-nine percent of last year’s applicants proposed technology services. Equipment purchased with the grant can be used by students during normal classroom hours as well as after school, Stonehill said.

The Cushing, Okla., Public Schools, for example, used part of its 1998 award to buy curriculum software and internet access for each of the 28 workstations in the district’s middle school computer lab. The school allows public access to the lab’s computers from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m., Mon.-Fri.

“We look at this grant as one step in the process of exposing people in the community to lifelong learning opportunities,” said Linda Wasson, director of Cushing’s after-school programs. “With the help of this grant, more students are going to be able to access information anytime–and have fun doing it.”

Only rural or inner-city public school districts or consortia are eligible to apply. The average size award is $375,000 for a grant that supports three learning centers. School districts have until March 1 to apply for a 1999 grant.