Knoxville after-school program faces funding cut

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Every parent knows how hard it is to find good after-school care, especially if you don’t have a big budget to work with.

An initiative called the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program sends government money to fund crucial after-school programs nationwide. The program is earmarked at $1.2 billion, but if President Trump’s budget is approved as proposed, all of the money disappears.

The S.M.A.R.T. Institute is an after-school program funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. It’s changing the lives of teenagers in East Knoxville.

“I received a vision that I was supposed to start a nonprofit after-school,” says Lashinski Emerson.

Students are taught to be more competitive in the classroom through exposing them to the world of math, science, arts and more.

“I like chess. I like gardening, oh it’s my favorite. I like the meditation class. I like the sewing class as well,” says Janna Ellis, a student at the S.M.A.R.T. Institute.

It’s the brainchild of founder and director Laschinski Emerson, who quit her job as a chemist at ORNL to take on what she says was a calling. So much has changed since its start 11 years ago.

“It’s so diverse now because we are trying to do that roadmap to say we want you to be productive citizens so the relationship building classes, learning how to grow your own garden, photography chess. We have our physical fitness. Of course we do our academics, that’s part of what we have,” says Emerson.

Monthly, the program nurtures some 200 students into becoming better thinkers, better students. According to the Afterschool Alliance, nearly 23,000 kids in Tennessee were enrolled in 21st CCLC after-school programs last year resulting in $22 million in federal funds for our state.

“Just think about this, that child who goes home if they can’t afford care are going to go home and won’t get the support they need to do homework. To do the work that makes the child a whole child. Then there is the opportunity for that child to get in trouble,” says Marie Alcorn of the United Way of Greater Knoxville.

The proposed federal budget from President Trump for next year wipes out those funds, leaving many low-income parents scrambling for quality care.

“Well, for that person who is lower income, that may mean that their child won’t be able to go to a quality program such as Boys and Girls Club, YMCA and get the work that they need, the help that they need, not only academically but also socially to get ahead in this world.,” says Alcron.

The Afterschool Alliance link to contact lawmakers about supporting Century Community Learning Centers: https://afterschoolalliance.rallycongress.net/ctas/tell-congress-dont-eliminate-afterschool

No federal funding means $250,000 gone from the S.M.A.R.T. Institute budget.

“It saddens me with the data that says afterschool programs do work. You have a structured setting. You do all the work. You see fabulous results. Not just at S.M.A.R.T. Institute but all across the country and to have that zeroed out, it just really hits you in the heart,” says Emerson.

Emerson says this financial scare has her looking at S.M.A.R.T.’s future.

“We’ve got to find ways to continue to operate. Whether we get 21st Century funds or not. That’s what it is saying to us because a cut is one thing but zero is a totally different ball game. So we have got to go out and make an appeal to the masses to say please help us. Look at the track record, look at the success.”

Click here to learn more about the S.M.A.R.T. Institute or donate to their non-profit.

WATE 6 On Your Side reached out to local representatives for their response.

Rep. Tim Burchett:

“Funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers was included in a massive, multi-department appropriations package that has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives. In fact, the bill that passed the House would increase, not cut, funding to the program. Unfortunately, Congress hasn’t passed an actual budget in two decades, so funding for good programs gets lumped in with pork and other unnecessary spending, and there’s never any real debate about how to properly prioritize taxpayer dollars.”

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