NEW YORK — A small group of third-graders stands in an auditorium that easily seats 500. But today there is no audience. Framed by dusty orange curtains, they move their lips soundlessly, their hands gesturing in time to a 1980s ballad. This is the grand finale to Cinderella, choreographed by their after-school counselor Pina Trapani in the sign-language that they've learned from her.
Over the past decade, after-school programs, like this one at a public elementary school deep in Brooklyn, have quietly become a mainstay in communities across the United States.
A supplement to academic work, they provide the backdrop for pursuits like sign-language - an extra that few school budgets can support. For low-income families in particular, they offer a safe place to foster emotional and social development, buying working parents a couple of extra hours at the end of the day.
But even with demand growing - here at PS 205, 500 children vie for 300 spots - there has been tension over the purpose of after-school programs: Should they emphasize recreation or education?
Education, it seems, is winning. Moves are afoot to link funding to how well programs are able to show quantifiable academic progress. And the after-school community is feeling vulnerable.
Advocates and some researchers say remediation is an unfair burden for after-school initiatives.
"Many programs are being asked to produce academic gains without being prepared to do so - meaning they're working with untrained or poorly trained staff who are poorly paid," says Joyce Shortt, codirector of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. "They're asked to produce results that a teacher can't produce in a school day."
Historically, after-school activities have fitted the needs of different eras, responding "to whatever aim society was preoccupied with at the moment," says Robert Halpern, a professor at the Erikson Institute for Graduate Study in Child Development in Chicago and author of "Making Play Work: The Promise of After-School Programs for Low-Income Children."
Near the turn of the century, the goal was "Americanizing" immigrant children. During World War II, with fathers at war and mothers at work, programs served primarily as child care.
Today, there's a push to address the achievement gap - the academic divide between white students and some minorities. As a result, there are educators and politicians who, desperate to meet standards, have come to see after-school hours as simply more class time.
In 2003, the first in a series of reports came out showing no effects on academic achievement for children enrolled in 21st Century Community Learning Centers. With a $1 billion budget, it's the largest federally funded after-school initiative, serving 1.4 million children. President Bush responded to the study by proposing that funding be slashed by $400 million. Congress rejected the cuts. In April, there were more murmurs of cutbacks, when the final report on the 21st Century Centers affirmed the original findings, but the budget has remained mostly level.
A year of after-school activities costs about $3,000 per child, estimates Lena Townsend, executive director of the Robert Bowne Foundation, which funds New York programs with a literacy bent. The cost at PS 205 is closer to $1,200, including administrative expenses. It's one of 81 "Virtual Y" programs run by the YMCA of Greater New York, serving more than 6,000 students citywide.
Chicago Public Schools programs are facing cuts in coming months in an effort to balance that city's budget. Meanwhile, San Diego's 2006 budget will hit 35 of the city's 178 before- and after-school programs. Twenty-seven have been eliminated altogether, undoing what in 1998 became the first effort by a major city to provide after-school care in each of its elementary and middle schools. The "6 to 6" Extended School Day Program drew 24,000 children last year.
Polls show strong public support for after-school activities. The majority of students who responded to a 2004 Public Agenda survey said they felt after-school programs "play a crucial and positive role in their lives."
A study in 2003 found that 30 percent of parents whose children are not enrolled in an after-school program would like them to be (for black parents the figure was 53 percent; for Latinos, 44 percent).
But even parents seem conflicted about the programs' purpose. Just 15 percent polled by Public Agenda expected them to improve their child's schoolwork. Academic support, however, was rated as being of "highest importance" by parents surveyed in a study of the Virtual Y released last month by the National Center for School and Communities at Fordham University in New York.
Parents said they especially appreciated homework help, which made it easier for them to enjoy family time. Sixty-four percent of the children enrolled in the Virtual Y come from homes where English is not the primary language, and some parents said they felt unable to help their children as much as they'd like. They are parents like Anna Stankowska at PS 205, who speaks Polish. With her daughter Carolina translating, Ms. Stankowska says she's grateful the Virtual Y has taught her fourth-grader about computers and respect, and helped with her education.
The Fordham study also found improved math scores for black and Latina girls at the Virtual Y.Other research has shown academic gains as well. An examination of 56 studies found after-school programs had a positive effect on at-risk students' reading and math.
But the real point, the "comparative advantage" of after-school, says Professor Halpern, is that it's not school. It can be a space where children are freer to set the agenda, a place to encourage nascent artistic and musical talent. After-school programs can offer a host of activities that, once part of the school day, have been pushed out by budget constraints and testing.
At PS 205, it's past 6 p.m. The day has come to an end, the children all picked up. All but one little boy. Ignoring his mother's calls, he stows away in the art room, preoccupied with a piece of clay. He doesn't budge until prompted by a Virtual Y staffer. Finally he scampers off to meet his mother, who says it's all she can do to get him leave at the end of each day.