Multnomah County commissioners will discuss cuts Thursday
by: John Klicker, Dexter McCarty Schools Uniting Neighborhoods students, from left, Andrew Wilson, 12; Betania Silva, 12; and Kaelly Thelander, 13; discuss the benefits of the program.

Thirteen-year-old Kaelly Thelander isn't shy about discussing her grades.

'Last year my grades were down. I was learning a new language, and I was new here, so it was hard,' says Thelander, a native of Columbia about to enter eighth-grade at Gresham's Dexter McCarty Middle School.

Then Thelander discovered SUN.

Known officially as Schools Uniting Neighborhoods, this county funded before- and after-school program offers academic help to children who need it the most, without being stingy on the fun.

Before participating in classes like volleyball, dance or drama, Thelander spent an hour in the SUN program's 'homework club,' where she got extra help from program volunteers.

Within a year, Thelander was speaking fluent English and her grades had made a drastic turn-around.

'I had Ds before,' she says. 'Now I have As.'

Thelander isn't the only SUN success story to come out of Dexter McCarty.

Several children have turned their grades around since joining SUN, says Josh Green, coordinator for the Dexter McCarty SUN site.

'SUN gives these children an opportunity to build skills socially and academically,' Green says. 'They can explore classes they may not otherwise be able to.'

Green has organized a four-week SUN summer program at Dexter McCarty. The weeks have different themes and this week is art week, which excited 12-year-old Owen Murray.

'I'm learning more about my favorite artist, M.C. Escher, and I like the drama classes,' Murray says.

Being in SUN, he adds, has helped him break through social boundaries.

'It's helped me meet people, and it's also helped me improve my grades,' Murray says. 'My goal now is to get into the Academic All-Stars next year and get all As.'

Dexter McCarty classmates Andrew Wilson and Halley Hagar also credit SUN with a turnaround in their academic progress.

'I have a pretty hectic lifestyle at home, and I wasn't getting my homework done,' Hagar, 12, says. 'When I joined the homework club through SUN we were in a big room, it was really quiet, and I felt like I had enough time to do my homework. Since then, my grades have improved.'

Wilson said he used to get mainly Cs and Ds in school but after joining SUN, he looks forward to going to school and is getting As and Bs.

All of the children in the summer SUN program say SUN makes regular school seem more fun.

Hagar is learning Japanese through the program. Wilson has taken an interest in the drama classes and plans to join the theater group in high school. Betania Silva, 12, who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was very young, joined a Latino Club through SUN and says she likes meeting other students who share her cultural heritage. Tammy Kerr, 12, says she used to go home after school and just watch television or play with friends. After joining the dance team through SUN, Kerr says she goes home and practices - after getting her homework done, of course.

'You have to have good grades to be on the dance team, so I've kept my grades up,' Kerr says.

These children represent a small portion of the SUN community. Dexter McCarty is only one of 52 SUN sites throughout Multnomah County, but it represents the larger picture, says Tiffany Purn, program manager of a cluster of SUN schools managed by the non-profit Metropolitan Family Service.

'We're pulling kids who really need help improving their benchmarks,' Purn says of the SUN program. 'The kids we serve are the ones who aren't connected to school … At least 50 percent of the kids in this program were below benchmarks.'

A yearlong study released this past April, conducted by the Northwest Regional Education Laboratory, showed 77 percent of children in SUN programs improved their reading test scores, and 73 percent improved their math benchmarks.

'These are the kids who might not otherwise be doing so well in school,' Purn said.

Last month, Purn, along with dozens of other SUN supporters, urged parents and students to support the program by attending a meeting of the Multnomah County Commissioners.

Hundreds turned out to voice their support. They urged commissioners to reconsider a plan to slash $1.7 million in SUN funding, but it was in vain. In the end, three of the county commissioners - Serena Cruz Walsh, Lisa Naito and Maria Rojo de Steffey - passed a budget that will cut the county's funding of SUN by more than half.

'The turnout at the county building was huge,' Purn said. 'It's disheartening though, when you work with people and encourage them to make their voices heard, to be engaged … and then to not have this very clear voice be heard. I just hope that people will continue to be engaged, that they won't give up.'

The county commissioners will discuss the SUN cuts at their regular board meeting, Thursday, Aug. 3.

Purn and other people closest to the SUN program have urged the three commissioners to not go forward with their original plan to cut half the site coordinator positions and make the remaining coordinators cover two schools.

'If that idea goes forward we would go from full-service to a minimal after-school program that is not linked to the school,' Purn said.

Most likely, she said, commissioners will opt to cut about 26 SUN sites and keep the others operating at current levels of service.

This could adversely affect East County, which has a high number of new SUN sites. Of the 52 SUN schools, nearly half are in East County, with 13 in Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds and Centennial school districts.

Outgoing County Chairwoman Diane Linn, an outspoken defender of the SUN program, told The Outlook last month that a lot of SUN resources recently shifted to East County because that's where the need was.

'We followed where the kids and families were that most needed the support,' Linn said. 'Would this (the county cuts) affect East County more? Yes, there's no question.'

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