George Lucas and Mellody Hobson at a red-carpet event. Lucas' foundation is donating $25 million to After School Matters, the city's largest after-school program.

The city’s After School Matters program will get a big shot in the arm with a $25 million donation from ‘Star Wars’ creator George Lucas, allowing the program to restore the stipends paid to students and helping to make up for a shortfall in fundraising in recent years.

“It’s wrong that teens who love this program are unable to come because of basic economics,” said Mellody Hobson, board chair for the George Lucas Family Foundation and wife of Lucas. Hobson and Lucas both attended the Wednesday press conference at Gallery 37 with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, where the gift was announced.

The $25 million, to be paid over the next five years, will help shore up a program that has suffered a significant decline in fundraising in recent years.

Founded by the late Maggie Daley 20 years ago, After School Matters offers apprenticeships to youth in a variety of fields, from sports to the arts to technology. Teens are given stipends to help cover costs or have extra pocket money, giving them extra incentive to participate as well as teaching them practical skills such as how to budget money.

The donation will be augmented by $12 million from the City of Chicago. After School Matters will not only restore stipends but also serve 4,400 more students.

In recent years, the number of teens who were able to participate in the program dropped when funding fell, forcing cuts in stipends of up to 75 percent. A student could have gone from making $400 a month to just $100, making it difficult to afford transportation and other costs associated with participating such as transportation.

“George and I are really excited to make this gift to the teens of Chicago,” said Hobson. “You all know that I’m in the investment business, and investing in young people is the best investment of all. There is no better use of money.”

A portion of the donation is also set to go towards a Challenge Grant to help create an endowment to replenish the stipend program in the future, so the gift won’t end up being just a “hit and run” investment, said Hobson.

This fall, After School Matters offered more than 6,000 program opportunities at approximately 150 locations, operating in Chicago Park District buildings, schools, and libraries across the city.

Mecca Johnson, a former After School Matters student and current senior at Loyola University, said the skills she gained in the program have been “put to work every day in college,” and that her adult mentor was particularly helpful with things such as cover letters and resume writing.

“For our children to live up to their full potential, we adults have to live up to our full responsibility,” Emanuel said. “During those crucial hours of 3 to 6 [in the afternoon], they have to have a safe space and adults that are there for them. Then, they have the ability, and I say this as a former dancer, to discover something about themselves.”

Out of School Time

The city launched a major effort to improve after school programming back in 2006, called the Out of School Time Project and funded by a three-year, $8 million grant from The Wallace Foundation.

The project narrowed its focus to solve a major problem: the lack of comprehensive data collection on after school programs. By 2009, the project had built Cityspan, an online database for submitting information, such as applications and enrollment, from after-school program providers.

“It’s a struggle to quantify what’s out there, what’s available to kids, what they still need and why,” says Kelley Talbot, director of youth development for ACT Now, (After School for Children and Teens Now), a coalition of advocates working to increase access for kids all over the state to high-quality afterschool programs. “Cityspan was an effort to answer those questions.”

But with a focus on data collection, the project left other areas unfinished. The After School Chicago website , meant to help parents and students find programs in their neighborhood that are suited to their interests, does little more than list nearby sites for programs, with a pop-up window that states “Call for additional information.” A citywide youth employment initiative, a multi-agency database that was supposed to link youth with employment opportunities, never got off the ground.

 Still, top officials say the effort was worthwhile. The data collection allowed them to “escalate” their work in two key areas, said Mary Ellen Caron, CEO of After School Matters, in an emailed statement: Quality assessment and data-driven decision-making.

Students were surveyed on a variety of areas, including their experience in the program, support from and interaction with instructors, and skills they learned. Instructors were also surveyed on issues such as professional development and resource use.

The information was collected in Cityspan for assessment and used to “drive evaluation efforts,” according to Caron.

But data collection, while it can make for better decisions, can’t make up for a lack of consistent funding. 

“Every year it gets harder and harder to secure the funds, and it’s been decreasing over the years,” says Lissette Moreno-Kuri, director of community learning centers at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said that while private philanthropy has recognized and supported after school programming, public investment has lagged behind.

However, Chicago was recently chosen as one of 13 finalists in the US 2020 City Competition, a program that supports city efforts to build STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics–mentoring capacity at the local level. Up to 5 cities will share over $1 million to increase mentoring for girls, low-income children and students of color.

Overall, Talbot says one of the biggest misconceptions is that there are a lot of options out there for kids, when in reality the “demand outweighs the supply.”

“There is this increased recognition of the results that after school programs provide,” she says. “But that demand is not being fully met and we need to push for these resources. We need to make sure to answer these demands and get kids access to [programs].”

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