By Leigh Dannhauser
Students in Rockbridge County have been getting a boost in their education for the past 10 years thanks to nearly $4 million in grants from a federal program.
The program is called 21st Century Community Learning Centers. It targets students in schools where poverty and low performance are problems. Currently, Central Elementary School, Natural Bridge Elementary School and Maury River Middle School receive the three-year grants.
Maury River Middle, which has been getting the money for the past two years, offers everything from geocaching to computer animation to bicycle repair as after-school programs, said Principal Phillip Thompson. “We’ve had the Lexington Police Department here with the junior police academy.”
The program began nationwide in 1998, but it got a big financial infusion with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. This year, $1.1 billion was earmarked nationwide. Rockbridge area schools got nearly $550,000 of that.
Maury River students can opt for homework help or after-school classes that Thompson says they otherwise would lack.
The grant money benefits adults as well as children. Maury River is currently offering a GED program for parents.
Maury River Middle, where nearly 54 percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch, has just entered the third and final year of its federal grant. By June, the school will have received a total of more than $450,000.
Grant recipients are given money for a year. Then their programming is evaluated. If the evaluation is positive, they get the same amount for two more years. Natural Bridge Elementary
School is in the second year of its program. Over three years, it will receive $555,000. Central Elementary School was awarded $200,000 earlier this year. Its program is scheduled to start shortly.
In the past decade, eight different grants have been awarded to six local schools, including an earlier one to Natural Bridge Elementary School and two to Mountain View Elementary School. To be eligible, at least 40 percent of a school’s student population must be qualified for free and reduced lunch, a standard marker for poverty rate.
Thompson says Maury River will not be able to continue its full after-school program once the grant runs out.
“We will be able to continue bits, but without the grant money there’s no way we could do all of the things that we do now,” said Thompson.
County School Board Chair Laura Hoofnagle acknowledges the value of the grant.
“There is a cost associated with it,” Hoofnagle said. “To offer any type of additional programming is expensive. The grant allows us to do things that we couldn’t otherwise do.”