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AmeriCorps' future in peril

Autumn Laidler kept four wiggling children in check as pandemonium unfurled around her last week. Glitter and construction paper littered the floor, and the gray-blue walls reverberated with the playtime noises of about a dozen darting gradeschoolers.

In the middle of the toy-strewn playroom, Laidler was a commanding presence.

She leaned over a table full of neatly arranged flashcards and examined a small girl's printing exercise. "You've been practicing your K's, haven't you?"

The child's face lit up as she softly said, "Yes."

Similar scenes unfold three times a week as Laidler, 23, tutors beginning learners in the community center of Pinellas Village, a government-subsidized apartment complex geared toward single parents.

"This is a program that works," said James Annarelli, the Eckerd College dean of students who oversees the work of Laidler and 14 of her fellow AmeriCorps members.

Despite the rave reviews, the fledgling summer program Laidler developed might be short-lived.

Laidler fills one of the 20,000 AmeriCorps community service spots likely to be cut nationwide as early as next month.

Corps members usually spend a year working full time on community service projects and receive $9,300 living stipends and $4,725 educational awards for college or graduate school.

The AmeriCorps national service program, created in 1993 under the Clinton administration, typically numbers 50,000. But prompted by community spirit following the Sept. 11 attacks, the program has taken on an extra 20,000 workers.

Along with the extra cost of the overenrollment, the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, has faced questions about its accounting practices, accusations of mismanagement and a resulting $65-million loss in federal funding in the current fiscal year.

That means AmeriCorps jobs will be cut, including an estimated 750 of 1,000 slots in Florida.

President Bush on Thursday signed legislation that settles the dispute over AmeriCorps' accounting procedures.

The Strengthening AmeriCorps Program Act will give the corporation more accounting flexibility than it now has _ essentially doubling the number of available corps positions.

But the legislation is not enough to put AmeriCorps back on track. A lack of money still will force AmeriCorps to cut its 2003-04 grants by about 40 percent.

"We know that even with this legislation, there will be significant cuts," said Sandy Scott, corporation press secretary. "That's why we are trying to leave no stone unturned."

AmeriCorps supporters have turned to Congress, beseeching members for the additional $200-million they say is needed to fully fund 50,000 AmeriCorps spots next fiscal year.

Maureen Moose, director of Tampa-based AmeriCorps Hillsborough Reads!, is waiting anxiously to learn whether Congress will fund the 34 AmeriCorps members her program needs to provide its current level of service.

With the reading assistance program scheduled to gear up in August, Moose is facing a time crunch. "We're scrambling to put together something to keep some program going," she said. "It's sort of a feeling of helplessness at this point.

"It's just a matter of how the corporation and how Congress is going to handle the program."

Congress has not indicated it is likely to bail out of the program, and Bush has been silent on the issue.

In Florida that silence could translate into about a $5-million loss in federal service grants and a steep decline in membership.

Local groups stand to lose up to 51 of the 68 Florida AmeriCorps workers now serving in St. Petersburg's AmeriCorps Pinellas and Tampa's AmeriCorps Hillsborough Reads! and AmeriCorps PowerUp.

In addition, nationally run AmeriCorps programs with branches in the area also will lose positions, including the Athletes in Service to America branch at Eckerd College.

"Through no fault of their own, whatsoever, they are faced with this cut," said Fred Sanguiliana, executive director of the Florida Commission on Community Service. "It's compounded by the fact that it has nothing to do with how well they've performed."

Performance assessments provided by the groups indicate they have been successful.

AmeriCorps Florida Reads! helped 3,730 of the state's lowest performers advance at least one grade level in 2001-02, according to the Reading Report Card Survey provided by the state.

In Hillsborough County, 175 struggling students were targeted, and 87 percent demonstrated at least a grade level improvement.

Individualized binders document children's improvement at the Progress Village site of PowerUp, a program aimed at erasing the disadvantage of kids who don't have easy access to computers.

Microsoft PowerPoint presentations graced even the kindergarteners' screens Thursday.

"Their skills have definitely improved," AmeriCorps member Danielle Shrader-Frechette said. "When you have kids this young, it's great because you can see them improving on a regular basis."

Each month AmeriCorps Pinellas director Lawrence Moose compiles a thick document charting members' progress on initiatives such as child mentoring, community beautification and crime prevention.

At the Lealman Family Center, where a summer program is primarily staffed with AmeriCorps Pinellas members, the effect has been noticeable, said Stan Stockdale, director of the family center. "If it weren't for having the additional volunteers, we wouldn't be able to provide this service," he said.

On Thursday, children at the center seemed quite happy that corps member Bill Tarr was around. They were using him as a jungle gym.

Amid the ruckus, Tarr, 73, recounted that he was mentored as a young boy in Ithaca, N.Y. "You never know if there's any long-range impact (of community service)," Tarr said. "But I know in my life there was."

Jasmine Tracey, 6, swings her way across playground equipment Thursday at the Lealman Family Center in St. Petersburg as Kelley Smith, a 19-year-old AmeriCorps volunteer, stands by to help if needed.

Bill Tarr plays tug of war with Jennifer Nazzuco, 11, her sister Stefanee, 8, Jessica Fredere, 8, Kira Solomon, 7, and Pauline Hicks, 8.