Beacons: Landmark Programs that Need a Raise

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of New York City’s Beacon programs, one of my favorite initiatives in the City.  Beacons are community centers located in public school buildings, offering a range of activities and services to participants of all ages, before and after school, in the evenings, and on the weekend.  Essentially, the idea was to take the great school buildings that were closing at 3pm every day, and use them to offer broader services to youth and their families.

The Beacons initiative is a complex and ambitious model of school-community-family partnerships established in 1991.  Beacons are managed by community-based organizations and work collaboratively with their host schools and communities to determine what services to offer.   Now a nationwide model, Beacons originated from a concern around the rise of violence in some of the City’s most challenged neighborhoods. Crafted by a tireless advocate of young people and visionary in the field of youth development, Richard Murphy, who served as Commissioner of Youth Services in the 1990s, Beacons were an effective component of Mayor Dinkins’ `Safe Streets, Safe City; Cops and Kids’ strategy to reduce crime by re-engaging individuals of all ages in positive recreational and educational activities.

Currently with 80 sites, the initiative enables community-based, not-for-profit agencies to create school-based community centers as “safe havens” providing stimulating, structured, supervised activities for children, youth and families in New York City neighborhoods. Over time, Beacons have become a focal point for neighborhood improvement efforts. Each year, nearly 200,000 children, youth and families are served by Beacons.

Beacon youth programs are designed to help participants acquire the skills and self-confidence they need to graduate from high school, succeed in their chosen career, and give back to the community. Typical youth-focused efforts include academic tutoring and homework supports; life skills classes; career readiness programs; arts and cultural activities; and sports.

But what is so great about Beacons is that they also open the school building to programs for adults and families, with activities including Adult Basic Education, High School Equivalency, and English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) classes; parenting skill workshops; tenant education and advocacy; as well as recreation.

There is only one major problem with Beacons: their funding levels.  Beacons are actually funded less today than they were back in 1991, having never received a funding increase for more than 20 years!  Beacons are still funded at $345,000 per year, less than the $450,000 they started with originally.  Accounting solely for inflation, Beacons today would be funded at over $800,000. 

This cannot continue.  One of the best tributes that Mayor de Blasio can make to Mayor Dinkins, who established the Beacons, is to put the programs on solid footing.  The Beacons budget should increase to $650,000 per program, a total budget increase of $24.62 million for FY 2017.

What would this allow in terms of improved programming?  Well, Beacons could compensate full-time and part-time staff at a living wage, for starters.  Programs could enhance the core areas such as civic engagement, career awareness, life skills, recreation/health, and culture/art, which have withered as budgets have run tight.  In addition, new initiatives within Beacons could expand to support young people with school-based educational initiatives like the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) curriculum and the transition to Common Core standards.

Right now, most Beacons target their services to middle schoolers.  A new Beacons RFP with enhanced funding is also an opportunity to address the unmet need for elementary and high school afterschool services, and further strengthen the City’s commitment to middle school services. This could also include an expansion of weekend and evening hours, which would align with the Mayor’s efforts to use community-based approaches to crime reduction.

Another overlooked asset that Beacons offer is that they are often the first job for many high school students, who work within the programs as counselors and activity leaders for younger students.  These valuable, intergenerational professional experiences should be expanded.

Beacons are a great example of a city initiative that went on to become a national model.  But we’ve let something that we should be proud of to wither on the vine.  Let’s make sure we can continue to celebrate Beacons, by giving them the funding they need to continue to support our communities.

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