Middle-schoolers may lose camp spots to budget cuts

Programs like one at KHCC could be in danger without de Blasio funds

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Summer camp season is just weeks away, but some away-from-home daytime affairs — like those at Kingsbridge Heights Community Center — might have limited options for young teens this year.

KHCC and other programs that offer free camp spots for middle school students is in limbo after Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed executive budget excluded funding for School’s Out NYC, which helps manage and fund those spaces. With de Blasio’s budget set to kick in July 1, it seems perfectly timed to ruin summer for thousands of kids.

Sadie Mahoney, who manages youth and family services for KHCC, has put kids looking to attend camp there on a waiting list while she waits to see what happens to some 60 seats at the Kingsbridge Terrace center.

“Middle school parents are confused. They don’t understand it,” Mahoney said. “They want to come in and enroll their kids in summer camp just like their little ones now.”

The city introduced School’s Out in 2014 as a way to bridge the gap between funding teen campers and eventually enrolling many of them in young adult employment programs for high-schoolers. With a price tag exceeding $35 million, the program has seemingly been under threat each year the mayor’s office has rolled it out. Each time it looked as if that funding would disappear, the city would find a way to win it back at the last minute, according to Greg Brender, the co-director of policy and advocacy at the United Neighborhood Houses.

“It’s been in this budget dance where there’s the fight to restore it every year,” Brender said. de Blasio campaigned on universal after-school programming for middle-schoolers during his first election in 2013. But ever since, School’s Out has existed on the brink of extinction every year except 2017, which just happened to be another mayoral election year.

After 20 years of working in youth services, Mahoney called the School’s Out level of funding for middle-schoolers unprecedented. Before de Blasio, her camps had few kids from the middle schools. Now, where she should be enjoying a large influx of adolescents, Mahoney instead worries that the constant state of limbo for School’s Out funding could handicap the summer camps where many kids may simply choose not to participate to avoid the hassle.

“What a lot of agencies do is they refuse to do it,” Mahoney said. “We’re one of the agencies who say we really want this for our middle-schoolers, so we’ll get everything done as much as possible, and be ready to go.”

Not knowing if they will have the 60 kids can be troublesome for groups like KHCC. The center’s camp program typically enrolls 70 elementary kids, meaning middle-schoolers nearly double enrollment.

“We’re paying for camp right now,” Mahoney said, already ordering T-shirts, bags and other supplies. The camp has to book field trips well in advance. And Mahoney has to hire support staff and counselors, some of whom she may not need if there are no free spots for middle-schoolers.

“When we don’t get notified until mid-June whether or not we have the funding, it makes it really crazy-making,” Mahoney said.

Mike Halpern is responsible for 11 camps as youth services director for the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center, including those at P.S. 95 and M.S. 244 in Kingsbridge. He estimates between 1,500 and 2,000 middle school slots at his camps are in jeopardy thanks to the proposed cut.

“I’ve learned never to predict against the city or with the city, because no matter what you predict, the opposite will happen,” Halpern said. He has “Plan A, Plan B and Plan C” to handle whatever level of funding his camps get — or don’t get.

For now, the city council is asking for $15 million to fund free spots for 22,800 middle-schoolers across the city. Susan Haskell, the city’s deputy commissioner of youth services, left the door open for School’s Out money to return by July 1.

“On the positive side, we do have some experience getting it out later in the year,” Haskell said.

While not ideal, last-minute funding is better than no funding, Maloney said. And she has some advice for de Blasio, who officially announced his presidential bid May 16.

“de Blasio did a great thing and I just hope the focus remains on the kids,” Mahoney said. “If you don’t want to lose those New York voters, let’s get this together.”

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