Eight-year-old Kayden Montes, who lives in the West Farms section of the Bronx, has great respect for “El Cuko,” the imaginary monster he hears when night falls.
“When it’s dark outside the Cuko comes out with all his Cuko friends and I hear them from my room all the way up here yelling and screaming all the time,” Kayden recounts. “My mommy says that if I don’t do good in school, that’s how the Cuko gets you and makes you follow him too. That’s why she doesn’t let me play outside.
What Montes does not realize is that the Cuko and its friends are actually neighborhood delinquents, and his mother is trying to protect him from becoming just another “hood rat”.
She keeps Kayden close to home and school. “But that’s ok,” the boy says, “cuz I get to see all of my friends in afterschool, and they let us play after we finish our work.”
Kayden’s mother, Patricia Hernandez, 26, voices the concerns of many families in the area. “This place isn’t a good environment for kids to grow up in, if it isn’t gun shots, its ambulances, or police sirens waking you up in the middle of the night,” said Hernandez, a single mother who also has a daughter, Kailin Montes.
Parents in the West Farms neighborhood of the Bronx look to after school programs as a means of keeping their children on track for a better life, but with plans for extensive cutbacks to those programs many parents fear the subsequent fallout.
Long time West Farms resident Maria Merejido, 54, remembers what it was like raising 4 boys in this neighborhood, “I always had to stay on top of them and make sure they did all of their work, I let them watch TV after but there was no way I was gonna let them play outside in that mess.”
The mess she referred to was a neighborhood embroiled in gang wars during the late 80’s and early 90’s. With all of her children grown now, ranging from ages 26 to 34, Mrs. Merejido recalled putting them through college, “It wasn’t easy but I always on top of them about their work. Around here college is a dream, but too many of these kids give up on it. So many of these kids get stuck doing the wrong things and it’s hard once you start down that road.”
An area primarily consisting of low income housing, West Farms is one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City with 34% of its households making $15,000 or less, according the Census Bureau. Located a mere block away from the southern entrance to the Bronx Zoo, teams of families bustle through the neighborhood on a regular basis for a day of animal watching. Somehow those same people seem all but oblivious to the seedy orange five story buildings that surround their pathway to the zoo.
Many will never know how the crime rate has dropped 65% since 1993, as reported by the CompStat for the local precinct, yet the neighborhood remains one of the more violent in the entire city. With a populace that is primarily too poor to live anywhere else, the residents consider the two fastest ways out of the neighborhood to be either getting an education or getting thrown in prison.
Now the city is planning to close 10 schools in the Bronx, which happens to be more than any other borough, as reported by SchoolBook. At least 3 of these will directly affect the West Farms neighborhood, but almost all are located in the South Bronx. Parents and teachers in these high needs areas are all feeling the stress. “All of my friends that still teach in the Bronx are saying similar things, they feel underappreciated and under attack when they are not to blame,” laments Annette Garb, 28, a former third-grade English teacher.
The Panel for Educational Policy, led by Chancellor Dennis Walcott, decided that these schools could not be kept open any longer: after considering test scores, graduation rates, and evaluating the leadership. All of the schools being shut down have received a grade of D or F in the last round of evaluations. Afterschool programs, on the other hand, are suffering at the hands of a tightening budget. With over $170 million in children’s services cuts proposed for the 2013 budget, as stated on Thirteen.org, more than half of the afterschool programs in the city will see their end. Now many children will have to go straight home and wait for their parents to arrive from a long day of work, in the hopes that they can help.
But in areas like West Farms it’s never that simple explains afterschool advocate Angela Johnson, “A lot of these parents want to be more involved but either they have to work all the time or they just aren’t capable of helping, so it comes down to programs like these and people like us to give these kids a chance.”
Impassioned though Mrs. Johnson may be her analysis of the situation is hard to contest, “These kids have it hard enough living in this neighborhood. It’s our responsibility as adults to make sure they have every chance to make it out.”