Why parents in tough Chicago neighborhoods fear after-school program cuts

Rachel Norwood and her son, Justice Watkins, on their way home from his school.

Story highlights

  • The Trump administration's budget proposal would eliminate after-school program's funding
  • Parents in Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods rely on programs to keep their kids occupied and safe while they're at work

Chicago (CNN)Rachel Norwood doesn't like her 10-year-old son walking home alone through their Chicago neighborhood. In Englewood, a distance of a few blocks can make a huge difference.

One part of the neighborhood has been revitalized. A Starbucks and a Whole Foods have recently opened in a shopping center that is heavily guarded by police.
But just one or two blocks away, the streets are lined with boarded-up buildings. Smoke billows from a backyard, and the smell of burning rubber fills the air. They pass shuttered strip malls and deteriorating sidewalks.
    "This is the hood here," Norwood says. "All of a sudden everything is dead."
    The sound of gunfire is commonplace here, the single mom says, and her son isn't old enough to navigate that environment alone and exercise judgment about how to stay out of danger. That's why she accompanies Justice on his walk to and from school -- a 40-minute journey each way.
    After work each day, Norwood picks Justice up from a federally-funded after-school program. If the program didn't exist, Justice would get out of school hours before Norwood's shift ends, leaving him to make his way home alone.
    Funding for those programs is now on the chopping block in the Trump administration's latest budget proposal.
    About 1.8 million students in high poverty areas across 54 states and US territories benefit from the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, according to a 2014-2015 US Department of Education report. The states with the most enrollees were California, Texas, Arizona, New York, Tennessee and Illinois. The program provides activities including chess, boxing, cooking, STEM training, cutting hair, art- and jewelry-making.
    Nowhere are these programs more critical than in Chicago's poorest and most violent neighborhoods, where parents living paycheck to paycheck rely on these after-school programs to keep their children occupied and safe while they're at work. They are a lifeline, parents and educators say, in a city where one child age 16 or younger is murdered every week on average -- something that police records show has been going on for more than a quarter century.
    Students learn chess and boxing in the after-school program at Deneen School of Excellence.