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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

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"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."

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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."