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The Boys & Girls Club picks up the slack when education cuts hit home

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THEY ARE NO. 1  One of the Boys & Girls Club of Central Sonoma County's sites was named the best in the country.
  • THEY ARE NO. 1 One of the Boys & Girls Club of Central Sonoma County's sites was named the best in the country.

In 2008, the California Teachers Association declared a "state of fiscal emergency" when the state's education budget was slashed by $18 billion. Libraries went unstaffed, teachers were laid off and schools closed, including some in the North Bay.

Enter the Boys & Girls Club, whose Roseland Elementary School site was honored in June by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America as the best in the country—out of more than 4,000 contenders.

"It's almost like winning the best movie award at the Oscars," says Jason Weiss, co-CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County. "What's unique for us is we run the same program at all our club locations. For us, it felt more like an organizational award."

The Boys & Girls Club steps up when budgets are slashed and programs cut. It's more than just a place for kids to hang out until parents can pick them up—each club tailors its offerings to fit the needs of each site. If a school had its physical-education program cut, a club can offer it as an activity. Library shut down? The club will put extra attention on reading and literacy tutoring. Art program canceled? You get the picture.

"We have more flexibility than the school does during the day," says Weiss. "Our whole goal when we open on a campus is to be a partner at that school. We have a lot of communication with the principal and teachers."

If programs are cut, he says, "we can very often fill some of those gaps for the kids."

The club serves at least a hundred students at each site, says Weiss, most of whom are from disadvantaged circumstances. "We're filled to the max at these places," he says.

The Sonoma County program came about through a years-long centralization process that put 28 individual clubs in the county under one umbrella organization, which is by far the largest in the North Bay. There are also independent groups in Sonoma and Petaluma, the latter of which has eight clubs in Petaluma and three in Marin County. The Boys & Girls Club of Napa Valley has 11 clubs in Napa and American Canyon.

At Roseland Elementary, principal Dana Pedersen says the club serves about 200 of the school's 650 students, 90 percent of whom are Hispanic. "And we always have a waiting list," she says. "It gives students, especially second-language learners, access to important skills and language practice."

Roseland's was the first on-site club in the district, and its success spawned other clubs. Now it's an essential part of the school. "It's just an extension of who we are," says Pedersen. "Our students would really suffer without them."

The club takes great care to integrate the school's curriculum with their own. "They have their own services, but they complement our services really well," says Pedersen.

"For us, it effects the wholeness of a child, in a certain way," says Weiss. "If they're missing out on things that kids 30 years ago used to get in school that really completed their childhood, that's something we try to pick up the slack on."

The club's funding comes mostly from government grants and private donations; 10 percent of its budget comes out of fees and dues charged to members. . The Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County runs on an annual budget of just over $5 million and doesn't have to worry about state budget crises. "The government funding we receive from the state of California is designated for after-school programs and would require a vote of the people to overturn," says Weiss.

The investment has paid off. The group has the 12th largest daily attendance among 1,000 clubs around the country, and serves almost 3,500 after-school students each day at 28 sites, 20 of which are located at the schools themselves.

And they're making the most of the centralized organization. The group received a recent grant for 50 iPads and created a mobile technology center that rotates between clubs, which gives all students access to the tools, instead of just those lucky enough to attend a certain school.

"They pride themselves on providing quality programming," says Pedersen.

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