2017-02-23 / Front Page

After school programs could help in longrun

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – First brought up during his state of the city address and now broached again at length at a recent school board meeting, Mayor Alan Casavant has suggested Biddeford consider implementing after-school programs to combat substance abuse and psychological adversity among students.

“Ongoing data has indicated a reduction in these things when ample options for learning and pleasure can be provided,” Casavant said in his state of the city address on Feb. 7.

Casavant, who taught psychology, American studies, global studies and U.S. history at Biddeford High school from 1976-2011, said he first got the idea when he read an article in the Atlantic about Iceland’s after-school programs, which include a focus on skill-building and passions in activities such as music, sports or dance.

At the Feb. 14 school board meeting, Casavant said that in Iceland, data suggests that “substance abuse dropped dramatically when kids were provided with structured activities that are tied in their skill sets or interests.”

Casavant said in a phone interview that the chief purposes of the programs would not only be to combat drug use or to mitigate stress and depression, but also to augment students’ selfesteem and confidence and to foster greater skills in the areas they’re most passionate about. The programs would also target students who may not be interested in athletics or music.

Casavant said that what Superintendent Jeremy Ray and he were seeing was when school ended, children lost structure and made bad choices.

“When we were talking about substance abuse issues, Ray and I started talking about how to deal with that issue about three years ago. If we can provide that structure and mentoring to those kids, they may not make those choices.

“We could make programming that fits the mold for these kids to build self-esteem and skills and teach them to make good choices,” Casavant said. “That’s the crux of the issue. It could be bird watching or photography or welding.”

In his state of the city address and in the school board meeting, Casavant acknowledged the “huge costs” for implementing after-school programs – which haven’t been estimated since the idea is in discussion phase – but he said there would also be a huge cost in not taking action.

“(The costs for the program) would pale in comparison to drug treatment and incarceration,” Casavant said.

Casavant pointed to Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland as an indicator of Biddeford’s problem with substance abuse among its youth.

“There’s a sizable number of kids from Biddeford that are there,” Casavant said. “We know today there’s a serious issue with drugs in our culture. We react when a person overdoses or needs help, but we do very little in terms of preventing it.”

Biddeford school superintendent Jeremy Ray said three years ago, about 10 percent of youth incarcerated at Long Creek were from Biddeford.

Officials at Long Creek did not respond when asked for current rates.

More than 80 percent of city budgets go to salaries and benefits to employees within the municipality, Casavant said, adding that schools are likely identical. Uing volunteers to provide services for the programs is an option. However, volunteers can be unreliable because they don’t provide the consistency that staff can.

“You would need someone who would coordinate these activities, whether in the classroom or the field, to take care of these individual kids,” Casavant said. “There are associated costs of programming too, like photography. You’d need to pay for some sort of equipment for the course. So there would be costs involved, but would that be cheaper than treatment or incarceration?

“When people start talking about after-school programs, they say that’s a good idea, but where do get that type of funding? I don’t know how much we can do in the short term, but getting the discussion going in public is important so (afterschool programming) becomes a permanent function of education. If we’re going to do this, it should be a collaboration of school and parks departments. In terms of budgeting sequence, they have to be on the same page. You don’t want redundancy or overlapping.”

Casavant recommended starting with a pilot program for middle or high schoolers, but the goal would be to expand it by adding programs and making them available to varying school grades, consequently generating additional costs. He said Biddeford could look at available grants that could go toward the programming, and state funds could also alleviate costs.

There are already student clubs in the Biddeford school system, but Casavant said, “While there are certain clubs, we’re still missing pools of kids that might have other interests,” and having teachers staying after school can be burdensome for them and involves a stipend.

Casavant said he’d like to see the programs be student-driven. The programs would change over time, he said, to provide for flexibility. A minimum amount of students may be required for the programs as well.

Andrew Burnell, full-time volunteer and program director at Community Bicycle Center in Biddeford, said based on his experience at the center he supports implementing after-school programs to instill positive values in youth and deter risky behavior.

The Community Bicycle Center, located on Granite Street in Biddeford, hosts a variety of youth programs. Earn-a-Bike is one such program that enables children to learn about bicycle repair and maintenance skills at the bike center’s shop. In summer, the center holds rides that range from five to 25 miles where youth cyclists have an opportunity to learn teamwork and explore Biddeford and other surrounding communities.

The center’s mission is to “provide youth enrichment opportunities for personal growth through bicycling-related activities,” according to its website.

“I think the more we can engage our kids in healthy, fun activities during after school hours, however a program decides to do that – great,” Burnell said. “We’ve got a special thing going on here at (the Community Bicycle Center) working with 400 kids per year, exposing them to places outside of their neighborhoods and developing positive assets and behaviors which we hope will decrease risky behaviors and carry them throughout their lives.”

“It’s important for communities and schools to support our young the best we can,” Casavant said. “Address their skill set and start opening that door, and kids crave that attention. They want to actualize their dreams. If you can nurture that, you can make them comfortable in their own skin.”

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