At the age of 7, Daphne Mills wore a house key on a string around her neck and rode a city bus home after school with her 9-year-old brother. There, the youngsters played, watched a little Star Trek, had a snack and waited for their mother to get home from work.
More than 30 years later, Mills’ 9-year-old daughter asks when she’ll be old enough to fend for herself after school. “I tell her to ask me again when she’s 12,” Mills says.
But even then, Mills doubts that she and her husband will allow their daughter to stay home alone after school. “I was a latchkey kid,” says Mills, who works full time. “That’s not healthy. There’s not enough structure, not enough adult supervision.”
So Mills’ girls – ages 6, 7 and 9 – attend a YMCA-run after-school program at their school. They check in with after-school staff by 2:45 p.m., and until Mills gets there at 5:30 or so, they keep busy. They do homework, eat a snack, play Red Rover in the gym or dodgeball outside, do art projects and talk to their friends.
“They’re happy there,” Mills says. “They’re safe, and they know they’re safe.”
Society Has Changed, Schools Haven’t
The parents of 28 million school-age children work outside of the home, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, but their kids are released from school long before they can fetch them. Many of them, like the Mills girls, attend after-school programs. But that’s not the case for an estimated 7 million to 15 million school-age children. These youngsters spend the afternoons on the street, at a playground, home alone or in more perilous situations.
Kids spend 80 percent of their waking time out of school due to an educational schedule based on a farming economy: afternoons and summers off meant kids could help out with farm work. Today, most families don’t live on farms and most parents work increasingly long hours outside of the home. But school schedules, for the most part, haven’t changed.
The result is a great deal more idle, unsupervised time for kids. That time is not only not being used to enrich and improve kids’ education at a time when American children consistently test below their counterparts around the world, but it is also contributing to rising crime rates that stem from unstructured, unsupervised afternoons.
After-school program advocates contend that the solution to these problems is obvious: provide after-school programming for all kids. “There are so many problems we face that we haven’t figured out the solutions for,” says Maryann O’Sullivan, state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids,
California, a leading chapter of a national nonprofit organization that backs after-school programming as a chief crime deterrent. “This one we know. We know after-school programs work.”
Proponents of universal after-school programming cite studies that document many benefits of providing children with supervised, structured and fun activities after school:
• Improved Educational and Behavioral Outcomes – Studies show that children in after-school programs improve behavior, school attendance, grades and graduation rates. They also interact better with peers. Studies also show that unsupervised children are three times more likely than supervised kids to be victims of violence. They’re also at greater risk for drug use, skipping school, sexual activity and other behaviors that lead to bigger problems. Advocates say that after-school programs ultimately save school districts money when fewer students repeat grades or require remediation.
• Crime Prevention – After-school programs are also cost-effective crime prevention tools when compared to programs that simply warn children about the consequences of committing a crime. After-school programs provide kids with better coping skills, expose them to activities and areas of interest for hobbies or careers, and build a better foundation of self-respect and self-reliance that deters criminal activity, advocates say.
Michael Carona, sheriff of Orange County, Calif., knows the statistics by heart. The vast majority of all crimes are committed by males between the ages of 16 and 24. In the group under the age of 18, the crimes occur between 2 and 6 p.m.
“It’s no great surprise that those are the hours a lot of kids are out of school and don’t have any other activity to be involved in,” Carona says. “By providing after-school programs, mentoring, computers, sports or something that’s interactive with the kids, you’ll have virtually dried up the feeding trough for gangs.”
• Parent Productivity – Reliable, high-quality after-school care may also contribute to increased productivity for working parents. Comprehensive after-school programming means fewer interruptions and emergencies, not to mention the peace of mind that comes from knowing your kids are doing something productive someplace safe.
The main challenge to providing after-school programs for all can be summed up in one word: money. Program fees generally do not cover expenses. Transportation is expensive. Attracting trained and motivated staff is tough if you can’t pay them much. Staff turnover for after-school programs nationally is 40 percent each year, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education.
If funding is patchy and comes from a diverse pool, it simply reflects the state of the current after-school system, which is fragmented at best. Programs range from enrichment-type classes (knitting lessons, computer labs, intensive French) and homework help to a gym filled with 100 kids and a soccer ball. They are run by religious organizations, YMCAs or Boys and Girls Clubs, local recreation departments, private groups, states or school districts.
More problematic, perhaps, is the seeming inability of advocates to publicly agree that after-school programming meets not just a particular need (their area of special interest), but many needs: • providing a safe spot for kids until parents get out of work; • enhancing academic achievement and promoting enriching experiences; and • preventing juvenile crime.
This despite the vast body of research and the goals theses advocates have in common. >
“With that kind of ambivalence about what it is, you have a difficult time trying to develop a unified approach to funding it, organizing it and providing access,” says Ellen Gannett, co-director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Until all parties and the public agree that it is all of the above, Gannett says, it will be difficult to shape the necessary after-school system.
A few years ago, President Clinton launched the framework for federally subsidized after-school programs. Funding for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which begins in September 2002 and will be funneled through state departments of education, has grown from $40 million in 1998 to a pledge of $1 billion for the coming school year.
This substantial increase in funding is good news, says Miriam Rollin, federal policy director for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids in Washington, D.C. “People recognize that this really is something we should be doing,” she says. Last year, congressional lawmakers introduced more than 50 pieces of bipartisan legislation directly related to after-school funding.
One of the champions, Rollin says, is Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Funding Subcommittee. Given that Iowa has the dubious distinction of being home to the highest percentage of kids in the nation who get no after-school supervision, Harkin recognizes that the need still far outweighs the appropriations.
“After-school programming can make a real difference in school performance and in kids’ lives,” he says. And though Congress has provided a fivefold increase in federal support for after-school programs in the last three years, “many children are still going without these needed services,” Harkin says.
No one really wants to ask Congress for the full amount of money it would take to pay $1,000 to $4,000 per child, per year, for after-school programming, Rollin says. And competition for a top spot on the ever-growing list of federal funding priorities has intensified since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Advocates contend, however, that any discussion of homeland security must also involve the safety of children when they’re not with their parents.
National Advocacy, Local Efforts
The federal government isn’t going to solve the after-school dilemma by itself, Rollin and others caution. The system must be a partnership that is funded – and supported – at all levels. The 21st Century programs, for example, provide grants to programs created and run locally. They purposefully avoid imposing a rubber-stamp organizational approach to after-school programming, Rollin says. The ongoing challenge, she adds, is to have the federal government provide a share of the resources – and a measure of accountability – that allow local organizers to cultivate vital, creative and responsive programs at home.
Sheriff Carona agrees that the government should ensure that the best practices are embedded in all programs. “They need to adjust to the community,” he says, whether in South Central Los Angeles or Boise, Idaho. “Programs will look different,” he says, “and that’s OK. They need to mirror what the youths need, and their families.”
The national picture is a web of state and community organizing efforts that relies on parents to support it. The Afterschool Alliance is a Washington, D.C.-based coalition with a mission to ensure after-school programming for all by the year 2010. Will that happen? “Only if there is a significant commitment made on the part of this country that we can do better for our kids,” says Judy Samelson, the Alliance’s executive director. “In the last year or so, the struggle has been to motivate people to act on something they said they feel so strongly about.”
National polls conducted by the Afterschool Alliance and others show that parents believe that after-school care should be a national priority. But citizens also need to speak up – to their friends and colleagues, local officials, state lawmakers and federal policy-makers – to get a commitment of funding for after-school programs. No one should assume that policy-makers agree with the need for after-school programming, Samelson warns (see Resources).
Carona says we need a holistic solution, one that doesn’t rely solely on federal tax dollars. Faith-based programs, nondenominational organizations and private groups, as well as private people and companies, need to work together. The money to make it happen is out there, Carona says.
“If Americans know that there are investments they can make in a kid, they’ll do it,” he says. “We just haven’t been real good about communicating that.”
Lisa Kosan is a freelance writer and editor and mother of two boys.