Sioux Falls School District transforming after-school and summer care
Replacing and revamping Kids Inc. will create a better experience for kids and more options for families. But the possibility of ending access to the five community centers has caused some confusion.
SIOUX FALLS – The five community recreation centers in Sioux Falls are where kids and adults can drop in and use the gym or take advantage of the computer room.
That’s probably coming to an end this fall, which has upset some parents and residents who use the free rec centers from 3 to 6 p.m.
At the same time, the Sioux Falls School District is revamping and improving after-school programs for students at 22 elementary schools in the city. It’s a major shift in how the district approaches after-school and summer programs for families.
They are separate, though related, conversations.
And, because of the different governments and nonprofits involved, it is confusing.
In the interest of public education, let’s break down some of the potential misunderstandings, what the new program will do, how it works and who is involved.
Let’s start with the names.
On one hand are the “community centers,” the five buildings attached to elementary schools in the city that we can refer to as “recreation centers” for clarity.
Then there are “Community Learning Centers,” which is the education concept underpinning the new after-school program that is replacing Kids Inc. in the district’s elementary schools.
The big-picture goal of the new after-school offerings is to improve the access and quality of the activities. To say it another way, give kids a better education, and a better chance at success in life.
The new plan will have licensed staff with a ratio of no more than 15 kids per adult. Families will be able to choose what best fits their needs, district officials say. That could include athletics, tutoring, mentoring, social skills or recreation.
Who Manages What
The rec centers were conceived nearly 30 years ago as a joint project between the school district and the City of Sioux Falls.
The Kenny Anderson Community Center opened in 1994 adjacent to the Anne Sullivan Elementary School on East Third Street.
Eventually, four additional rec centers were built with Oscar Howe (Kuehn), Harvey Dunn (Morningside), Hayward (Mari Car) and Garfield (Oyate) elementaries.
In general, the buildings have a double gym, a computer room, a game room, kitchen areas and meeting rooms.
They are supervised by just a few city Parks and Recreation Department staff members, but there have been safety concerns, including fights and bullying. The environment allows young children, teens and adults to all be mingling in the same spaces.
The city wants to modify the agreement, and take the parks department out of the equation, said Rebecca Wimmer, coordinator of community partnerships and after-school programs for the school district.
“What the city is proposing is that they modify that use agreement and they no longer occupy that space from that 3 to 6 p.m. time frame,” said Wimmer.
The decision on the rec centers use agreement is up to the Sioux Falls City Council. The parks department will update the council on the plans on Tuesday, April 18.
However, indoor recreation is consistently among the top needs that comes up for the parks department. For example, the aquatics plan recently presented to the city council included options for additional indoor recreation options, including areas for walking, courts, turf and exercise equipment.
In short, the city wants to do better than the current rec centers because that’s what people say they want.
The rec centers are one of the main locations for adult sports leagues, such as volleyball and basketball, run by the parks department. Those leagues will continue to use the gyms in the evening, if the management plan is approved by the city council.
The potential change has upset some parents because the rec centers are free and unstructured, meaning a student would have a place to go after school with at least a minimum amount of supervision if they needed to wait for a ride home.
“I really struggle with it,” said Rachael Wullstein, whose 10-year-old son goes to the Kuehn Community Center attached to Oscar Howe Elementary. The unstructured time lets him play and learn more about football with some older boys. He was enrolled in Kids Inc. but was having trouble in that setting, Wullstein said. Since stepping out of Kids Inc. and going to the center after school, things have been much better.
“His behavior has changed so much since the beginning of the school year,” she said.
District officials recognize there will be some adjustment to the changes that are coming.
“The drop-in program is great but if you really want to move the needle with kids, and you want to make a lifelong impact, you’ve got to have programming that addresses what those kids need,” Wimmer said. “If this happens, how do we as a school district, as a community, say, ‘OK, let’s take that and how do we make it better?’ How do we make sure that kids are getting access to the things that they need to be successful?”
There will always be a segment of parents that resist signing up. Or they only need a place where a kid can wait for a short time to get picked up after school a day or two each week. Or they work erratic schedules.
Wimmer is quick to point out that learning centers aren’t a blanket approach for every family. They recognize that people have individual circumstances. It’s a conversation they want to have with anybody who has questions or concerns.
“I’m always trying to bridge gaps for families and help them find the right thing for their family,” Wimmer said. “Maybe this program doesn’t work for them. Maybe they are looking for something different. Where in the community do we have something different for them?”
The first year of the after-school program has a budget of about $7.5 million.
That money comes from a variety of sources including fees, grants and fundraising.
In addition, staff costs will be shared with the non-profit partners, including the Boys & Girls Club, Volunteers of America, the YMCA, Volunteers of America-Dakotas and EmBe.
The advantage for the non-profits is that they are currently bussing kids from the schools to their locations. That goes away with Community Learning Centers because the staff will be in the schools.
Taken together, that’s a lot of money that can pay for licensed staff people rather than gas and maintenance for a bus fleet.
It will cost the district about $5,000 for a student who uses the full year of services, including days when there isn’t school and for the full summer.
That doesn’t mean every family will pay that amount. It’s billed out by service and there’s a sliding scale based on income.
Here’s the breakdown of options:
- $65 per week for 38 weeks in the school year. That doesn’t include a week after school is out and a week before school begins in the fall. Total: $2,470.
- $85 per week for 38 weeks including the days when there isn’t school, such as in-service. Total: $3,230.
- $150 per week for 12 weeks in the summer. Total: $1,800.
Those are fees if a family doesn’t qualify for scholarships.
Through fundraising, grants and community organizations such as the United Way, the district has enough money budgeted to provide scholarships to at least 600 students.
Currently, about 47% of families in the district qualify for free and reduced lunch programs.
Applying that ratio to the projected participation of 1,800 during the school year, means somewhere around 900 students would qualify for scholarships.
Not every family that qualifies will apply, however.
With the current Kids Inc. program, the district was able to give financial help to about 10% of the students enrolled. The additional grants and fundraising get that number above 30% at least, likely higher, said Wimmer.
Financial assistance kicks in if a family’s household income is less than 300% of the poverty level. That varies based on the size of the family and changes with inflation. But right now, the district says the threshold for a family of four is $90,000 a year, or $7500 a month.
This is where it gets a bit more complicated.
The sliding scale isn’t based on the student, rather it’s what the household can afford. So, a family can have one child in the program, or four, but what they pay is based on their total income.
In the case of a family of four, for instance, the sliding scale says they should be able to pay 4.25% of their income for child care, or about $318 a month.
The scholarship would cover the difference between $318 and whatever their final cost would be, regardless of what programs they use or how many kids are in the program.
The total cost to cover 600 scholarships estimated for next school year – from grants, donations and state and federal funding – is about $3 million.
A wide range of activities and education options will be available to the kids. That includes mentoring, tutoring and academic instruction, as well as the fine arts, sports, computers and social skills.
The partner agencies such as V.O.A. and the Boys & Girls Club will provide much of the licensed staff who will lead the activities. There are also specialized opportunities for things like culinary skills and field trips.
That variety and quality of activities is a big step up from the current after-school environment, Wimmer said.
“This is Kids Inc. on steroids,” she said.
It’s going to require quite a bit more staff, however. The non-profit agencies will use the money saved from eliminating the bus fleets and space needs to pay for the staff. That increased efficiency across the board allows for better use of tax dollars, donations and grants to serve more children, officials stress.
Registration for the new program is ahead of the previous levels for Kids Inc., Wimmer said.
They are predicting that 1,800 children will be enrolled by the fall, which is 500 more than this year.
The roots of the Community Learning Center started with conversations between Wimmer, Steve Hildebrand and Cynthia Mickelson.
Hildebrand is the founder of the Promising Futures Fund, which works with Title 1 schools in the city in a variety of ways from providing books for kids to taking middle schoolers to area universities to serving teachers appreciation lunches.
Mickelson is a member of the school board and advocate for public education in the state.
At the time, Wimmer was leading the Boys & Girls Club of the Sioux Empire. She was hired by the school district to spearhead the after-school transformation in 2021.
“The best thing about the new program is that there will be enriched programming,” Hildebrand said. “Kids will continue to learn while they are having fun.”
Because the students will be enrolled, they will have to be checked out by a parent or designated adult, which will improve the overall safety, he said. Currently, a child using the recreation centers can come and go as they please, which can lead to problems.
“It’s going to be great for kids. It’s going to be great for families,” he said.
Mary Konvalin has been working in child care for 30 years. Now the executive director for Lil Friends Learning Center, with three locations in Sioux Falls and Tea, she worries that the district is trying to take another district’s concept and apply it here.
“What works in one community doesn’t mean it’s going to work in another one,” she said.
There are serious issues with finding qualified people for the positions now, Konvalin said. That’s not going to get any easier for the private providers or the district, she said. That said, Lil Friends will continue serving families with quality care, including mornings before school.
“It’s always the non-profits that get brought into everything and the for-profits get whatever is handed to us in the end,” she said.
The school district isn’t trying to do it all, Wimmer said.
There are many private day-care providers in the Sioux Falls metro area and Wimmer says that they have to remain and be successful.
The Community Learning Centers will not – must not – affect those resources, she said.
“I never want to discount the importance of the other providers in the community,” she said. “At no time do we ever think we should capture all the children in the Sioux Falls School District and keep them after school. We need the rest of the community to function as an entire engine.”
The city council will be briefed on the plans next week.
Then the use agreement changes will be scheduled for a first reading. The second reading, and a final vote would follow a week or two after that.
Ideally that would be finished by the end of May, Wimmer said.
That said, the district will proceed with the Community Learning Centers in the elementary schools regardless.
“If they decide that’s the direction they want to go then the school district will use that space,” she said.
Registration is open for families to enroll here.
More information is available here.
Parents who have questions are encouraged to call (605) 367-4424 or email firstname.lastname@example.org