Kindred kids

Students at Chicora Elementary and The Charleston Catholic School discuss their differences and similarities at their first in-person meeting through WINGS for Kids' Kindred Kids pen-pal program. Deanna Pan/Staff 

Mexico is not going to pay for Donald Trump’s wall, so Treio Breland may have to instead. He is 10 years old.

Treio and his pal Cincere Flynt are fourth graders at North Charleston Elementary, and they are in the same “nest” together at WINGS for Kids, a widely acclaimed after-school program that serves about 1,600 low-income kindergarten through fifth graders in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and California. You’ve certainly heard about it because WINGS was invented two decades ago in Charleston.

“It is really great,’’ says Treio. “We all get along real good. It is like family.’’

Call me soft, but I didn’t have it in me to explain to Treio that President Trump wants to Make America Great Again by taking a big bite out of the family budget — as in zeroing out the family budget. Trump plans to eliminate federal funding for after-school and summer programs — $1.2 billion that helps school districts, churches and nonprofit groups that serve more than 1.6 million poor kids nationwide.

Axing the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers would cost WINGS for Kids $1.6 million of its $5 million annual budget. Trump’s plan to end Americorps would mean another $400,000. But somebody has to pay for that wall, the expanded nuclear arsenal and the tax cuts for billionaires. Thank you for giving, Treio Breland.

At a time of widening income inequality, we’re cutting after-school programs for poor kids? Come with me to the cafeteria of North Charleston Elementary after school to see for yourself.

About 140 kids, almost all of them black and all of them low income, are sitting on the floor, arranged in circles of a dozen kids and a counselor. They are in their “nests,’’ holding hands, smiling and singing (loudly) the WINGS Creed:

I soar with WINGS,

let me tell you why.

I learn lots of skills that help

me reach the sky.

And on it goes. How they remember it all I have no idea. It is just the beginning of a three-hour, five-days-a-week after-school session that will focus on social and emotional skills — this week’s topic is teamwork — and includes homework tutoring, playtime, a snack, supper and a bus ride home. It is a safe place to be when your parents are at work.

About 8,000 children have gone through WINGS since political activist Ginny Deerin started it in 1996 from an extra room in her Sullivan’s Island beachhouse. WINGS and other programs like it are built on improving things like behavior, relationship skills and decision-making.

“You go to school to get your head smarts. You go to WINGS to get your heart smarts,’’ says Bridget Laird, who was Deerin’s first hire 19 years ago and has run Wings since Deerin departed in 2011.

Today, WINGS has 500 kids in four South Carolina schools and 750 kids in seven schools in Georgia and North Carolina. It is running a pilot program in four schools in Pomona, Calif., as a prelude to scaling up nationwide.

That was before Donald Trump. The President has different priorities such as $54 billion in new defense spending and his “big, beautiful wall.’’ Education? Not so much. Trump’s budget calls for slashing education spending in 2018 by $9 billion, or 13.5 percent. It would cut teacher training, funding to help low-income students prepare and pay for college, and after-school and summer programs. There is no evidence such programs are effective, the administration says.

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David Grissmer, a research professor at the University of Virginia, has spent four years evaluating the WINGS program for the U.S. Department of Education. His research has followed 300 Charleston-area students, half in WINGS and half not, and while his final findings will not be available for six months, he already knows what Trump’s plans to defund after-school and summer programs will mean.

“It is an awful idea,’’ he says. “They are going through the budget slashing things willy-nilly without understanding what these programs do.’’

Teaching more hours of reading and math is not going to yield better results for low-income students, Grissmer says. Instead, what is most often missing is the kind of “executive function,’’ the ability to focus and not get distracted, that affluent kids learn after school and in summer camp and poor kids do not — or exactly what WINGS aims to do. This is how to close the racial achievement gap, he says.

“Everything is fair here,’’ Treio told me in the cafeteria.

Unless people stand up, Treio is about to get a real-world lesson that life is not always so fair.

Neighborhood update

Last Sunday, I wrote about the challenges facing corner stores on the peninsula. Two days later, J&W Grocery at Wentworth and Pitt went before the Board of Zoning Appeals to ask that its hours be extended to 10 p.m. from 8:30 p.m., saying the earlier closing times made the business not viable. City officials opposed the 10 p.m. closing, instead proposing a 30-minute extension to 9 p.m., contending that was ‘’reasonable.’’ Many neighborhood residents spoke in favor of allowing owner Walid Ismail to stay open later, fewer opposed. In the end, the BZA voted unanimously for the later closing time and for corner stores, showing the vision the city lacked.

Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Commentary page. He can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com.

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