Children and youth from Hillsborough County schools can once again take advantage of the after-school and summer programs provided by the parks department.
The Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation has a long history of such programs, but in 2009 the Hillsborough County School District stopped allowing school buses to transport children anywhere but their homes following their school day.
Covered extensively by The Observer News at that time, this posed a dilemma for working parents, especially single parents, when the school bell rang in the afternoon and the parents didn’t get off work until later.
As previously reported in a 2010 award-winning news series titled “Residents Plead with Commissioners to keep After-School Program Transportation in Place,” disallowing school buses to transport children to parks produced thousands of latchkey kids who could no longer get after-school care. This was because most after-school programs for youth cost more than $100 a week per child, although some may be less. The parks department has sliding-scale fees, based on whether a student gets free or reduced-price lunch at school.
Top price at the parks program for students who do not qualify for free or reduced price lunch is $38. Those receiving free lunch participate at $20, and those receiving reduced-price lunch participate for $20, said Rick Valdez, who heads up the programs for the department.
“It’s definitely the best deal in town because of the things they get to do, not just the price,” he said.
All kinds of activities for children and youth from 5 to 15 are provided, from computer skills and sports to arts and games, to keep the youth constantly moving and involved, he explained.
But when the schools stopped sending the school buses, the programs suffered as well as the children who could no longer attend. What resulted is that some less-used parks were no longer able to operate after-school and vacation-day programs, although summer programs were still kept in force.
This school year, however, the school district reinstated the buses under Jeff Eakins, who came to the Hillsborough school district as a teacher in 1989 and worked his way up to deputy superintendent of schools in 2013 and superintendent in 2015.
Parks Department administration has also changed, putting “Doc” Dougherty in charge.
The policy changed with the new school year.
“This has made a tremendous difference to the kids,” said Dave Ramirez, long-time recreation program supervisor based at Gardenville Community Center. “Our program participant numbers went up right away.”
According to East Recreation Manager Debbie Robinson, buses are being initiated into the parks system by the school district and are currently available to the Ruskin Recreation Center from Thompson and Shields elementary schools, and to Gardenville Recreation Center from Gibsonton and Corr elementary schools, as well as Eisenhower Middle School.
Some schools in Brandon, Mango and Thonotosassa are now also getting buses and the parks department is working with the school district on the possibility of adding more schools in the future.
For information about which school’s students are eligible for buses, call the school board at 813-272-4000; costs, programs and registration forms for the parks are available online at www.Hillsborough.County.org/Parks.
To obtain a letter qualifying your child for reduced park department prices, get a copy of his or her school reduced or free-lunch eligibility from Student Nutrition Services by calling 813-840-7092.