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Finley-Sharon school saves at-risk after-school program

FINLEY, N.D. - More than $1,500 worth of pizza helped bring two rural North Dakota towns together like one big family to save an after-school program that lost its federal funding.

FINLEY, N.D. - More than $1,500 worth of pizza helped bring two rural North Dakota towns together like one big family to save an after-school program that lost its federal funding.

"We became a family. We watch out for each other," said Diane Pedersen, a teacher at Finley-Sharon Elementary, located less than two hours northwest of Fargo.

With the after-school program's fate in limbo, the two communities - with a combined population of 665 - fought to hold onto their after-school program by uniting through fundraisers and events to save what they said their 28 elementary students couldn't do without.

"It's a great benefit to our kids, our community," said Laurie Tuite, a parent and fundraising organizer. "It gives them a place to go."

And their fight paid off on Tuesday, when the School Board decided to keep offering after-school activities.

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"We don't want the program to die," board President Angie Gullicks said before the meeting. "But the budgets are getting tighter and tighter."

It turns out that pizza - and the more than $4,000 the community raised - persuaded the board to approve the program for one more year.

Gullicks said the board's decision likely would have been different if the community had not shown its support.

The district - which has fewer than 200 students - has operated the program at Finley-Sharon Elementary for eight years. This year, the school didn't qualify for the 21st Century program - a federal grant for nonschool-hour academic activities particularly directed at low-performing schools or those with a high number of low-income students.

The grant requires schools to prove that 40 percent of their students qualify as high-poverty - something Finley-Sharon could no longer show.

"It's that big number you have to meet," Pedersen said. "It does make it tough because every community has kids with needs."

In North Dakota, 102 schools receive the popular grant, state program administrator Dale Patrick said. Years ago, because not many schools applied for the grant, the state "allowed more schools that really didn't qualify," he said. "And that's how Finley-Sharon got in."

Because more schools are now applying, Patrick said state requirements match federal rules, changing the funding status for some schools.

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Finley-Sharon isn't alone. Thirty miles away, Hope-Page Elementary lost funding for its after-school program, meaning its School Board has to fund it this year.

Tuite said the programs are vital for families that can't afford child care. They also help students receive extra one-on-one attention from teachers.

It's a priority the Finley-Sharon community is willing to make, even though monthly rates will rise and the program will be reduced to two hours a day, Superintendent Merlin Dahl said. The district is applying for local grants and is continuing with fundraisers to pay for the $18,000 program, he said.

So for now, Finley-Sharon students have a place to go this fall after that last school bell rings - thanks to the collaboration and unwavering commitment of two towns.

"That's a community that values education," Dahl said. "We got to really battle and keep it going."

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The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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