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Over the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to tour three separate after-school programs within the 18th Congressional District.

These programs have been funded through the 21st Century Learning Centers, a Department of Education grant program that is providing the resources to help kids stay off the streets and out of trouble after school hours. Last June I announced the awarding of the funding to the three school districts: Peoria District 150, Illinois Valley Central 321, and the Regional Office of Education Number 46 (covering Morgan, Cass, Brown, and Scott counties). More than $2.8 million has gone to these districts this year to help the programs get off the ground and it is hoped these programs will be funded over the three-year life of the program.

I visited these three districts to find out first hand how your federal tax dollars are being spent and if these programs are worthwhile. I came away from each program quite impressed with how well these programs engage our children with activities that not only keep them out of trouble, but also expand their learning opportunities.

The children I spoke with were not timid or halfhearted, but instead I could sense they really enjoyed the programs and the opportunity to learn skills in a more relaxed environment than a normal classroom setting. I was also impressed with the passion and dedication of the staff and teachers involved in each of the programs.

The three programs represent three very different types of communities. Peoria’s program is based in inner-city schools. Chillicothe represents a "suburban" school system. And the Morgan-Cass area represents a rural district. Even though these are very different districts, each one has a common bond of involving the students in activities which they don’t necessarily have the opportunity to participate in during regular school hours.

The minute I walked in Manual High School and was shown the wonderful photos taken by students participating in a photography class that is part of the 21st Century program, I knew these kids were getting something beyond their basic "three R’s." These photos were of professional quality and were absolutely amazing. That day I visited three other schools on Peoria’s south side and interacted with kids who were cooking meals, expanding their computer skills, reading books, and participating in dance routines.

In Chillicothe the students were learning artistic skills, creating computer-generated animations, participating in a journalism class, and taking part in a scholastic bowl.

Several of the teachers and administrators I visited with mentioned the fact that if not for this program, many of these students would be out on the streets after school, or they would be at home staring at the television until their parents came home after work.

After dealing with the kids all day, these hard-working teachers still had the desire to make sure their students continue to have an environment that enables them to learn and grow. 

We often hear reports of teenage and younger children getting in trouble in the after-school hours. I have heard many people say we need to engage our children more and ensure they have things to do besides watch television. And while parental involvement is of utmost importance in the lives of children, programs that keep kids engaged while the parents are working is, I believe, a worthy use of tax dollars.

The 21st Century Learning Centers program is doing exactly what it was intended to do: keep kids involved after school and expand their opportunities for learning. IBI

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