Home Alone Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

Summer and out-of-school programs aid working parents in keeping latchkey kids off the streets and out of trouble

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Eleven-year-old Frederick Hollins can describe last summer in a single word: bor-ring.

He and his mother, Lisa, knew no one in the urban neighborhood where they had just moved. So Ms. Hollins, who works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a nursing supervisor, was reluctant to let her son play outside while she slept during the day. Day after hot day, Frederick played indoors until his mother awoke.

This summer promises to be much more exciting. As one of 60 9-to-13-year-olds enrolled in a pilot program called the Citizen School, Frederick will spend nearly six weeks learning apprenticeships in three fields. He'll play sports and do community service.

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"This has everything I was looking for,'' Ms. Hollins says of the nonprofit program. "Freddie's going to be learning something."

For legions of other school-aged children, vacation days will be far less structured. Although summer programs are increasing, supply still falls far short of meeting the needs of many single-parent or dual-career families. Working parents, particularly those in lower-income jobs, must often make do with a patchwork of arrangements, including leaving children alone.

Estimates of the number of latchkey children in the United States vary widely, from the Census Bureau's admittedly conservative figure of 1.5 million to as many as 9 million. Yet child advocates agree on one point: Home alone may be funny in the movies, but it's no laughing matter in real life, particularly in neighborhoods where violence and crime cast long shadows.

Children's safety is an issue, as is their risk of falling in with the wrong crowd. One study of 350 10-to-12-year-olds in Illinois finds that unsupervised children use drugs at a much higher rate than those who were supervised. Latchkeys are four times more likely to have gotten drunk in the past month than other youths and more than twice as likely to have smoked during the same period.

Parents without access to affordable summer programs often turn for help to older siblings, grandparents, neighbors, and friends. Before Hollins started her current job, she was on the giving end of summer care. For seven years she took as many as 10 children to beaches, parks, movies, and museums every day. "All my girlfriends were working and didn't have the funds to send their kids to camp," Hollins says.

As one way of meeting such needs, the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund last month announced a national initiative to improve the quality and quantity of after-school and summer care for elementary and middle-school students. The three-year, $3.6-million program, called MOST - Making the Most of Out-of-School Time - gives grants to organizations in Seattle, Chicago, and Boston. Some of those funds are enabling the Chicago Park District to extend park programs from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

When families' needs are met, results can be gratifying. Yvonne Sanders, a Chicago secretary, has three sons who have benefited from a long-running program at the Carole Robertson Center for Learning on the near west side. This summer she drops off the youngest, 12-year-old Marcus, at 8 a.m. on her way to work, then returns at 5 p.m.

"It's been a lifesaver," Ms. Sanders says. "I know where he is, and when I pick him up he's tired, so I know he's had a good day. Keeping them busy stops them from hanging on the street or getting with the wrong group or getting bored."

Some educators say it is middle-school students like Marcus and Frederick who are often ignored in out-of-school care.

Speaking of 9-to-13-year-olds in his Citizen School, president Eric Schwarz says, "This age group is particularly underserved. They're too young to work and too old for some of the arts-and-crafts recreation programs. They're looking for something meaty to do."

A similar attitude prevails at Reebok, which next month will donate $1.5 million to after-school and summer programs. The three-year initiative, called Boost (Boston Out-of-School Time), will help inner-city youths.

"We see the greatest need among 11-to-16-year-olds," says Zoe Aponte, public affairs manager. "By funding creative programs, we thought we could have a positive impact on choices they would make later - about peers, whether they're going to have sex, do drugs, smoke cigarettes, and stay in school."

Yet Brian Stone, co-author of the Illinois study, does not think students this age always need an adult nearby. "Adults who simply cannot be there can still supervise by having strict rules," says Mr. Stone, assistant professor of school psychology at Wichita State University in Kansas. "It's kids who are left to their own devices, who aren't checked up on, who run into problems."

To help families avoid problems, the YWCA School's Out consortium in Seattle holds workplace seminars to educate parents on the importance of enrolling children in after-school and summer programs. "We also provide workshops for kids on safe self-care, because we recognize that there still are many, many children going home to empty houses," says Mari Offenbecher, project director.

Some corporations play a part as well. For the second summer, Genentech, a biotechnology company in South San Francisco, is acting as a liaison between employees and nearby day camps where 5-to-12-year-olds can play while parents work.

Audrey Karkiainen, a Genentech employee whose six-year-old son attends one of the camps, compares her situation to those of friends working elsewhere: Summer care is "definitely a juggling act for them, whereas I have a long-term schedule in place."

That juggling act will continue, child advocates say. Even welfare reform will have great impact on the need for out-of-school care as new laws require recipients to work or do community service.

"Even if the mom has a job during school hours, it doesn't mean that job takes off for summer vacation or school release days," says Elaine Fersh, director of Parents United for Child Care in Boston.

Emphasizing the importance of quality out-of-school programs, Mr. Schwarz says, "Kids are only in school 180 days a year, about five hours a day. Teachers alone can't raise the next generation. The rest of us need to pitch in."

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