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The mayor's cruel cut

It's unconscionable to balance the budget on the backs of city schoolchildren.

The unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray last year focused national attention on Baltimore and its problems, particularly the lack of opportunities for young people. The riots were a wake-up call that the frustration and hopelessness built up over decades of neglect could no longer be ignored, and in a move widely praised by youth advocates Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pledged last spring to increase funding for youth programs by $4.2 million this year to support new after-school enrichment programs and recreational activities aimed at the city's most disadvantaged youngsters.

But her decision not to include the money to continue these programs in next year's budget is unfathomable and unconscionable. If the unrest was driven in part by a view that City Hall ignored the inner city unless it was on fire, she could have found no better way to prove the point. Ms. Rawlings-Blake generally has been a good steward of the city's finances, but cutting youth programs in the face of such demonstrable need amounts to a betrayal of everything we learned from last year's unrest. The mayor and City Council must find a way to reverse this penny-wise, pound-foolish course and restore those funds.

What's at stake are dozens of school- and community-based enrichment programs begun last year that will be forced to cut staff, scale back operations or shut down altogether under the city's budget ax. These programs serve thousands of youngsters in some of the city's most distressed neighborhoods, including Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray grew up; Harlem Park; Penn North; Oliver; Laurel Park and southern Park Heights. They provide enrichment opportunities ranging from tutoring in math, reading and science to programs in athletics, music instruction and the performing arts. One group, the Umar Boxing Gym in Penn North, offers free boxing lessons to students in exchange for their participation in its after-school academic program.

Many of these organizations are community-led grassroots projects that are not based in school buildings. Last year was the first time in recent memory such groups were eligible for city funding, and more than two dozen of them received small grants. In addition, the funding allowed the creation of six new community schools where students can receive meals even when school is closed as well as social services and extended learning opportunities. Those schools expanded by 2,500 seats the number of children served by groups like the St. Francis Neighborhood Center in Reservoir Hill and the Baltimore Leadership School for young women downtown.

Baltimore's public schools are under enormous pressure to improve students' performance on standardized tests. But the focus on testing has also led them to de-emphasize other areas that contribute to academic success, such as art and music instruction, debating societies, theater productions and athletics. As a result, many kids are denied opportunities to participate in a broad range of activities that involve mastering the kinds of social and intellectual skills that contribute directly to academic and life success. The children who need after-school and summer learning programs the most — those in foster care, refugee and immigrant youth, and youth involved in the juvenile justice system, for example — have the fewest opportunities of all.

Closing that opportunity gap requires a sustained, long-term investment in city youth programs, one that continually expands the number of children served. Even the total of $10 million in funding allocated to youth programs this year we won't reach all the kids who need it. As Ellie Mitchell, director of a statewide coalition working to increase the quality and quantity of after school and summer programs, wrote in a Sun op-ed this week, even with last year's increase, just 16 percent of Baltimore's young people have access to any after school opportunities. Surely Baltimore can do better than that.

We'd like to believe the city's stepped up youth funding last year wasn't just a token gesture made under duress, something to be snatched back as soon as the TV cameras attracted by the unrest moved on. The mayor and City Council must demonstrate an ongoing commitment to improving opportunities for youth that lasts beyond the city's brief moment in the spotlight. Restoring the cuts to after-school and enrichment programs ought to be their first order of business. There's got to be a way of closing the budget gap without further widening the opportunity gap that already has had such tragic consequences for this city and its young people.

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