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Popular Forest Hills After-School Program on the Chopping Block

By Nigel Chiwaya | June 22, 2012 12:29pm
Students at the Forest Hills Beacon Program have made signs protesting the closing
Students at the Forest Hills Beacon Program have made signs protesting the closing
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DNAInfo/Nigel Chiwaya

QUEENS — When asked what she likes to do after school, JHS 190 Russell Sage student Amily Trochtchenkova responds without hesitation.

"I go to the gym," Trochtchenkova, 13, replies. "I play basketball. That's my favorite sport."

When asked what she would do if she didn't have the after-school program, Trochtchenkova's response came just as quickly.

"Go home, do my homework alone, be bored," she replied.

Come next month, Trochtchenkova and hundreds of students like her might not be able to partake in the array of activities offered by Beacon — an after-school enrichment program at JHS 190 and dozens of other schools around the city that is facing a $2.1 billion budget gap for 2012-2013 school year.

With such an enormous deficit, the mayor's office is looking to close seven Beacon programs across the city, and the Forest Hills Beacon, which serves over 1,000 children, is on the chopping block.

Unless Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council can come to an agreement within the next week, the program at JHS 190 on Austin Street and Yellowstone Boulevard would shut down on July 1, organizers said.

The Forest Hills Beacon program provides children ages 6-21 with tutoring and counseling, along with art, dance, music, sports, and other enrichment courses. The program, which runs six days-a-week, also provides programs for adults as well.

Patrick Pinchinat, the director of the Forest Hills Beacon, said that the program fills a void for the children when their parents are at work between the hours of 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

The seven Beacon programs that were chosen for defunding are all in affluent areas such as MS 198 on the Upper East Side.  Despite the Forest Hills Beacon's location, staff says that the program serves many underprivileged children from around the borough.

"There are kids from 50 different ZIP codes here," said Mike Bolt, a Beacon counselor. According to the staff, children in the program come from places like Corona, Elmhurst, Rego Park and Lefrak City as well as spots from around the five boroughs.

"It's difficult, because we're meeting the criteria for quality and enrollment," said Pinchinat. "It's just that we're in an area that is low poverty, so I guess they feel like we don't need it."

But Beacon does not plan to go down without a fight.

Several local politicians, including Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, Assemblywoman Grace Meng, Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi and state Senator Toby Stavisky held a rally outside of the JHS 190 on April 3. Several groups, most notably Campaign 4 Children, have been holding daily vigils outside of City Hall to protest to cuts to after-school programs. And Bolt said that over 60,000 letters have been delivered to the mayor's office.

Even the students have gotten into the action. Prior to the April 3 rally the students designed posters that read "Save our Beacon" and "Don't Cut our Budget." The staff believes that the student's advocacy has been education. "They've learned so much about civic engagement," Pinchinat said.

The Forest Hills Beacon will learn its fate by the end of next week. And while Pinchinat hopes the mayor will spare the program from the ax for educational purposes, he believes that doing to will also help further the mayor's health goals for the city.

"The mayor is so caught up on banning sugary drinks," Pinchinat said. "Well here we give them milk and orange juice. At home, you know they'll be drinking sodas."