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New parks program expanding to two more South County recreation centers

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Parks programs for students were — and are still — in flux.

BY PENNY FLETCHER

When school opened Aug. 23 parents of many students who had always used facilities at South County parks for after school care had to make other arrangements.

That’s because the parks programs for students were — and are still — in flux.

Some parks no longer have the traditional after school care they have had for the last 25 years, although most still have events like karate and dance that students may attend. But signing children up for activities did not assure their parents they would be safe all afternoon until they got in from work.

That is not the same as knowing students leaving school have a place to go until six p.m.

Cost cutting was a deciding factor in devising a new program to replace the traditional after school programs at the parks.

This program is called Rec2Six.

Only 18 parks in Hillsborough County have this program at this time. The only one in South County is the Apollo Beach rec center. 

Thankfully for parents, however, as of Jan. 2012 the two regional parks in South County, Gardenville and Ruskin, will also have a Rec2Six program.

“Those parks were part of the original transition plan,” said county spokesman Willie Puz Nov. 3. “The board (County Commissioners) wanted us (the parks department) to come up with a plan that would show measurable results.”

Rec2Six must have done just that, because it will now be implemented by three parks in South County instead of just the one.

The problem now is, however, that Rec2Six started Sept 26 while school started Aug. 23.

The Apollo Beach park only has four students participating at this time, where always before there were long waiting lists for slots.

“This makes it look like parents don’t want their children in the program but that isn’t true. It just didn’t start soon enough,” said Pat Woolweaver, president of a focus group that works to better the Apollo Beach park.

“Parents had to find after school care for their children before school opened. They couldn’t wait a month,” said Joe Buerhop of Gibsonton. “I’m a working single father of a child that was attending Dowdell Middle School. Last year the school district provided bus service from Dowdell to Gardenville Recreation Center but this year, they have discontinued that service. Since there is no one at home to look after my child and we do not have any relatives in the area that she can go to, I have taken my child out of the school district and enrolled her in a school near my office in Manatee County. This of course has caused some difficulties with my job and additional expenses.”

Buerhop went on to explain that he did not want his child to walk home alone from the bus stop the two miles to his home and stay there alone from 3 to 6 p.m. until he got home.

The Rec2Six offered at Apollo Beach, at $38 per child and $20 for any child receiving free lunches, offers organized recreation and physical activity while providing skill-building recreation, social interaction and exposure to culture and the arts.

It’s cheaper than private child care facilities and gives a good value for the money. But staff at the regional parks that will be adopting the program wonder if parents will pull their children out of the private care they have previously arranged and send them to the parks program, and if they don’t — will those programs be short-lived?

Transportation after school causes a lot of grief for working parents as well.

John Franklin, director of transportation for the Hillsborough County School District, said the district supplies only transportation to after school programs for “exceptional students” but not those in regular classes. 

Buses from schools to parks programs have been discontinued a little at a time over the last few years until now, none are left.

Mike Russo says he and others like him can solve the transportation issue if enough parents band together.

Russo is owner of Recreation Express in Tampa. For the past five years he has transported children to after school programs all over the county with his eight buses.

But this year, due to low rider ship, he no longer makes South County runs.

“Last year I had a bus go to Summerfield Elementary and Summerfield Crossings and take them to Balm Park, and had another bus go to Dobie and Apollo Beach for the Apollo Beach Rec Center,” Russo said. “But I can’t send a bus for less than 25 or 30 kids. It would be too much of a loss.”

Russo said he has lowered his price from $60 a month to $45 a month per child to take them from school to after school programs at the parks. But there just aren’t enough kids this year for him to come to South County.

“It’s about $11 a week, and with the park fee of $38 or even $20 (for free lunch students) it’s still a better deal than most child care facilities. But the parents would have to get together before I could schedule the trips,” says Russo.

Other child care programs in South County attribute some of their success to having buses pick up students after school.

“What parent can get off in the middle of a workday and go pick up his kids?” Buerhop asked.   “I certainly can’t. The people who make the program rules need to think of the families they are supposed to serve.”

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