Gladys Aponte lives less than a mile west of Revere Park. So it's easy for her to swing by there and pick up her daughters, ages 11 and 7, on the way home from her data entry job downtown.
Aponte has a choice of two after-school programs at the park, which is at 2509 W. Irving Park Road. In the field house, the Park District runs Park Kids, which offers sports, arts and crafts, homework help, and other programming at a cost of $120 for an 11-week session. In the building next door, the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club offers similar activities for about the same price.
Last year Aponte chose the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club program because it would be free: she qualifies for help from Child Care Assistance, a program funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services, and Child Care Assistance pays for the club program but not Park Kids. But she soon learned that her daughters were going to have a hard time getting there. Although buses take students from their school, Walt Disney Magnet School in Uptown, to Revere Park every afternoon, school officials wouldn't let Aponte's daughters ride those buses because they weren't enrolled in Park Kids.
Aponte says she spoke with the school's busing coordinator, Nancy Jones, to no avail. "I told her I wanted them to go to the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club, but she said, 'No, that's not on the list. It's not a Park District program.' I said it's the same damn thing—the buildings are right next to each other—but she wouldn't listen. She tells you Park District, period." Aponte ended up paying for her daughters to go to Park Kids.
Amanda Fox, who runs the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club, says she's seen parents encounter this kind of problem before. "There are only a handful of sites that the public schools will drop kids off at and they have to be a Park District with a Park Kids program," she says. The Chicago Public Schools shouldn't make an exclusive arrangement with the Park District, she adds, "when the goal is to keep kids off the street and give them something productive to do and give them a safe place where they can spend time with friends and not be alone at home."
As a result, low-income parents like Aponte either have to find the money to enroll their children in Park Kids or arrange their own transportation. "I have parents who take their lunch breaks when kids get out of school to bring their kids here," Fox says.
Nancy Jones at Disney referred inquiries about after-school busing policy to the school system's central office, where spokesman Mike Vaughn told me that CPS's student transportation department has to approve any request to take students to programs that aren't run by the Park District.
Chester Tindall, the general manager for student transportation, said he didn't see any problem with dropping Disney kids off at the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club, since buses go from the school to Revere Park anyway. But Disney principal Kathleen Hagstrom has the final word, he added, because she needs to be sure students are enrolled in legitimate after-school programs where they'll be supervised by adults. Hagstrom didn't return my call.
According to Vaughn, Jones has received only one recent request for a drop-off at the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club. She didn't deny the request, Vaughn said—she simply asked for written proof of enrollment but never received it.
"We're trying to be flexible," Vaughn said, extending an invitation—through the Reader—for frustrated Disney parents to call him at the CPS press office for help sorting out similar problems.
Aponte took him up on it. She says he told her Jones needed written proof that her daughters were enrolled in the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club program. Aponte insists she was never previously asked for proof, and when she followed up with Jones "she said she didn't know anything about it" and referred her to Hagstrom, who Aponte says was out all week.
Meanwhile, Aponte has signed her daughters for both Park Kids and the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club, which she says keeps better hours and stays open when the schools have in-service days. They're able to take the bus to Revere Park after school. But once they step off the bus, instead of walking to their left, into the field house, they walk to the their right and settle in at the club, where they do homework and hang out with other kids until Aponte picks them up at 6 PM.v