On a Monday afternoon at Fulton County’s S.L. Lewis Elementary School, 144 students gather in the gym after dismissal. They are grouped in “nests” of 12 kids each. As they wait for everyone to arrive, they talk excitedly to other students and group leaders.
This is an after-school program called WINGS for Kids. It began more than 20 years ago in Charleston, South Carolina, and came to Atlanta five years ago. It now serves five Atlanta-area schools in low-income neighborhoods. Each day after school, kids come to WINGS for a curriculum centered on social emotional learning.
“We do that because we know that for kids from vulnerable backgrounds -- particularly kids from high-poverty areas, maybe fractured families, they may have high-crime areas in their communities -- that you can't just throw academics at them and expect them to succeed in school,” says Denise Blake, executive director of WINGS for Kids Atlanta.
Blake says WINGS kids aren’t just doing homework for three hours after school.
“We have small group settings that teach kids things like personal responsibility, working in teams, having trusting, caring relationships with adults in their lives, especially within the schools,” Blake says.
Getting through the “clutter” of emotional baggage, Blake says, clears the way for better school performance. She says WINGS’s own research shows kids in the program have improved in three areas: school attendance, behavior and academic performance.
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would cut $1.2 billion from summer and after-school programs, like this one. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney recently explained why school programs are on the chopping block.
“They’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they can do better in school,” Mulvaney said. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that.”
But research has shown otherwise.
And single mom Jalita Law says she noticed a difference in her daughter, Riyanna Hairston, right away.
“The first year when she was in WINGS, she came home and I noticed she was more willing to discuss her feelings and her emotions,” Law says. “She says, ‘This is what we do in WINGS. When something goes wrong, we talk about it. We talk through it.’ So, I think it’s given her a lot of courage. It’s given her a lot of motivation just to kind of be herself.”
Riyanna, a second-grader, believes the program has made a difference, too.
“It helps me with learning things and being a good friend to others, and it helps me make new friends and like be nice to everyone, even though they’re different,” she says.
Fifth-grader Alanni Billings says she finds comfort in the program.
“Sometimes lots of things can get frustrating, but when I come to WINGS, I have very kind and caring people that find out what’s going on,” she says.
If the president’s budget is approved as is, WINGS would lose 55 percent of its funding. That kind of budget hole is too huge to fill with donations and other grant money, Blake says. Instead, it could mean more than half of the program’s 700 kids would be left in a lurch after school.