ST. LOUIS — It's 3 p.m. Do you know where your children are?
With 75 percent of mothers with school-age children working today, millions of parents are looking for a satisfying answer to that daily question.
Juvenile crime triples during after-school hours, according to the Justice Department, and working parents from inner cities to quiet suburbs need a safe, stimulating place for their kids.
In response, three companies are creating a new for-profit genre of before- and after-school care in public schools nationwide. Offering a mix of recreation and academic enrichment, the companies bring their own supplies and use school cafeterias or gyms.
Many local school officials are welcoming them. "Lots of parents are interested in one-stop shopping where they drop their kids off in the morning and pick them up at the same place after work," says K. Gerald Smith, principal of L.G. Nourse Elementary School in Norton, Mass., which recently opened its school to Explore Inc. "But the thought of adding an afterschool program to my office - I just physically couldn't do it," he says.
Explore, which began in 1996 and operates in 30 schools in four states, supplies its own staff and equipment, including computers, games, books, and art supplies. The curriculum, wedged between a snack, physical activity, and homework help, is organized into monthly themes and emphasizes hands-on activities for children in grades K-8.
For working parents like Diane Weber, Explore is a relief. This Brookhaven, Pa., mom has to be at work before her seven-year-old daughter's bus arrives and leaves long after the final school bell rings.
"It was hairy," she says. "Here in the morning, there in the afternoon." Weber credits the Explore program, which costs her about $3 an hour, with not only solving her child-care problem but improving Gloria's reading skills and overall grades as well.
Despite such rave reviews, some school districts would be unlikely to consider these new child-care options: "There are probably a number of school districts that do not allow for-profit corporations to use their schools," says Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association.
Nonetheless, these programs - billed as "enhanced learning" and often staffed with teachers from the school site - are targeting parents interested in giving their children an academic boost. The programs are usually flexible about attendance. Students may come from two to five days a week, allowing them to participate in sports or other extracurricular activities.
Mary Lou Brooks sends her two children to the Nourse Elementary Explore program two days a week even though she doesn't need child care.
"I wanted an academic program that would hold their interest," she says. Explore does that, while also helping them make new friends. Help with daily homework is an added bonus. "My daughter gives me a hard time [about doing her] homework, so this is a relief," Ms. Brooks says.
Sylvan Learning Systems, which is known for its franchised tutoring centers, is also entering the after-school care market. Its Mindsurf program is in the pilot phase in 25 schools in Maryland. Sylvan provides computers and camcorders for its technology-based activities and works with National Geographic to develop themed curricula. In one segment, for example, students create their own video productions.
Voyager Expanded Learning, which takes a somewhat different approach, started licensing school districts to operate its program three years ago. Voyager provides the curriculum, essential materials, and training for staff. Themed units vary from studying the space program to starting a mini-business. Voyager began in 11 Dallas-area schools in 1995 and now serves 35,000 students in 23 states.
With a growth rate of 45 percent a month, Voyager expects to be in 40 states by fall. "The old stereotype about a single mother with three children being the main audience for after-school care just isn't true anymore," says Julie Lyle, Voyager's director of marketing. "Our whole social climate has changed, and we need a place to put our children."
But some critics say more academic stimulation is not what children need after a long schoolday. "There's a lot of pressure on children, certainly from parents, to load up on more academics," says Paul Shore, an associate professor of educational studies at Saint Louis University. "Many children really don't need more hard-core academics."
Mr. Smith, the principal at Nourse Elementary, sees the impact of providing so many structured activities for today's children. "Twenty-five years ago, you could see four or five kids get together, organize a game, and make their own rules," he says. "Today, I don't think kids can choose up sides and make their own game because we've become so over-organized."
Despite that criticism, he sees a desperate need for new after-school options. "A lot of parents are scrambling around for help," Smith says. "The schools are being placed in a situation where more and more is being asked of us. The buildings are here and if we can use them in a meaningful, productive manner, I think it's a no-brainer."