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Take it to the BANC

November 12, 2018

GREENWICH — Even when her mom has a day off, third-grader Chantelle Rodriguez wants to go to the Byram Archibald Community Center, the town’s after-school program in western Greenwich.

“It’s important,” said her father, Carlos Rodriguez, through a translator.

The Rodriguez family is one of 68 families relying on BANC, a low-cost agency in walking distance from New Lebanon School, where most of the kids are enrolled. The program allows Chantelle to socialize with other kids and receive homework help, while allowing her parents to work until 5 p.m.

The town of Greenwich has spent the better part of this year mapping community services, including BANC, that can help close the achievement gap between children from low-income and high-income areas. Members of the initiative are reviewing where children receive support, and where they still fall through the cracks.

“It has to be a community-based solution, we can’t just say, ‘Schools, teach better,’” said Alan Barry, the commissioner of the Department of Human Services.

The quality of education across schools is consistent, but if students fall behind outside of school, they have a hard time catching up, he said.

“If we focus solely on the schools, we’re missing the boat on this,” Barry said.

Lower incomes, higher needs

Youth Program Administrator Christina Nappi has watched BANC grow from a community drop-in center for K-5 serving 30 kids to a licensed child-care program for K-3 serving 74 children, with a waiting list.

BANC’s population has shifted as more families in Greenwich have fallen below the poverty level and speak English as a second language.

Eighty-five percent of BANC families are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, the income eligibility requirement of the Greenwich Department of Human Services. Many of these families comprise the more than 6 percent of Greenwich’s population living under the federal poverty line, according to the 2018 United Way Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed report.

BANC families that can afford it pay a one-time suggested registration donation of $75. If they cannot, the donation is waived or they pay a smaller amount. Families who are over 200 percent of the poverty line pay a suggested monthly donation, up to $200 a month, that depends on family size and income.

BANC offers free enrichment programs, such as chess and yoga, and field trips to the Bruce Museum. Students used to receive swimming lessons at the YWCA, but busing cost twice what lessons did, so the program fizzled out last year. It was the only opportunity many kids had to learn the skill.

“That was something really appreciated by the parents,” Nappi said.

A program like this can only flourish in a town with means, such as Greenwich, said Assistant Program Coordinator Dinora Hernandez.

“We’re fortunate to have donors,” she said.

They could soon need more. Students with behavioral and educational needs are enrolling in higher numbers, Nappi said. The changes at BANC reflect those in the public school district. The number of “high needs” children: those who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, require special education services or are learning English, has been steadily rising. This year, the population surpassed 30 percent in the district.

But the distribution of high needs students is disproportionate. At New Lebanon School, the ratio is 81 percent.

As with the school system, the high-needs students require much of the BANC staff’s time.

“It is a struggle for us,” Nappi said.

Most of the families are English as a Second Language households. BANC offers an adult English as a Second Language program on Wednesday nights facilitated by Family Centers Literacy Volunteers.

And about 90 percent of the staff speaks Spanish, like Hernandez, who and switched fluidly between English and Spanish when greeting parents after work on a recent afternoon.

Transitions

New Lebanon’s kindergarten classes have been attending school at BANC for the last four years due to size constraints in the school building. That will continue until the new school opens, which the district predicts will be in January.

“They’ve been a partner to the school and the community,” said Colum Kilgallen, the parent of Daniel, a third-grader in the program.

Daniel spent kindergarten at BANC, which made coming to the building after school as a first-grader a seamless transition.

Leaving BANC is another story. Some who age out of the program go to the Boys and Girls Club, but many go to the Byram Schubert Library, since they are old enough to be there without a parent.

Rodriguez said his daughter will probably go to the Boys and Girls Club.

“There is no other place,” he said.

But for families without transportation or with a special-needs child, getting to programs for older children, which are outside of Byram, can be more difficult, or cause anxiety, Nappi said.

“They’re kind of overtaking the library,” Nappi said. “They’re old enough to be there, but they do not get the enrichment of an after-school program. The need is definitely there.”

The library staff is great, Nappi said, but they do not have emergency contacts, the specialized workers or structure of an after-school program.

Over the years, there have been several meetings about the influx of kids at the library, and members of the PTA have talked about creating a formal program, Nappi said.

Ideally, Hernandez said BANC could use more aids for special-needs children, more space to accommodate wait-listed families, more English as a Second Language programs and a clinic day, with flu shots and vision tests.

Staff also need training in helping older students with their homework, Nappi said, since, for example, they are unfamiliar with math methods adopted under the Common Core.

Another challenge was presented by the later school day adopted for Greenwich High last year. High school students used to comprise much of BANC’s staff, paid and volunteer. But with the later school day at GHS, students can no longer arrive early enough for the start of the BANC after-school day.

“We actually have postings for openings right now,” Nappi said.

Community

Despite the challenges and strain, staff members said they value seeing the effect their efforts have on the children in their care.

Nicole Masi, a 2016 graduate of Greenwich High and a sophomore at UConn, Stamford, volunteered last year and was hired on this year.

Masi lived down the street from BANC during her childhood, but never attended. Now, she said, working at the building is a new way for her to get to know the people of Byram.

“It feels good to be a part of the community,” she said.

Hernandez, a Byram local who attended New Lebanon, Western Middle School and Greenwich High School, grew up in the BANC building. At 16, she joined the staff and has stayed on for 15 years.

The programming has changed, but the sense of community has stayed the same. She now takes care of the children of counselors who looked after her, and she sees kids come back as volunteers down the road.

“I really enjoy the impact I have on this program,” she said. “I see everybody grow up here.”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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