Officials say Tacoma middle school kids will be the big losers if money to save the after-school SPARX program can’t be found.
“It has a positive impact on our student body,” said Jon Kellett, principal of Jason Lee Middle School. “Any after-school programming can help kids find their niche.”
Krestin Bahr, director of middle schools for Tacoma Public Schools, added: “It’s been an effective model. It’s a time for kids to explore who they are.”
Metro Parks operates SPARX for students from all nine Tacoma middle schools. The parks agency hires young adults to oversee SPARX activities, everything from cooking to hip-hop dance, martial arts to visual art. There’s also a space for kids to work on homework, and in some schools, SPARX works in tandem with after-school tutoring programs funded with education dollars.
During school holidays, SPARX takes kids on field trips so they can learn to ice skate or paddle a kayak. SPARX students have traveled to local attractions such as Northwest Trek and Seattle Center.
Metro Parks has relied on funding from the City of Tacoma to pay for SPARX, but those dollars were threatened by a recent change in the city’s grant application system that made this year’s process more competitive.
City, parks and school officials said Friday that they are trying to find the dollars to save SPARX, at least through the end of the current school year. But no final decision had been made as of Friday afternoon. If funding can’t be found, SPARX could end as soon as this month, both city and parks officials said.
SPARX is popular, with an estimated 2,500 kids participating each school year. Working parents like SPARX, because it gives their middle schoolers – considered too old for day care – a safe place to spend after-school hours. They can ride home on an after-school activity bus provided by the school district.
SPARX began in 2001 as part of the city’s crime-prevention efforts. The goal was to spark kids’ interest in positive activities and provide a safe place for them after school hours.
Middle school is “a tender time in kids’ lives,” said Metro Parks spokeswoman Nancy Johnson. SPARX is designed to give them a sense of belonging.
“You don’t have to try out or make the team,” she said. “Every kid can feel valuable.”
Estimates of the shortfall facing SPARX for this school year range from $185,000 to $235,000.
In 2010, voters approved a Metro Parks special levy request designed to raise $5.5 million for parks, trails, playgrounds and recreational programs, including SPARX. But Johnson said that falling property values have reduced expected levy revenues