For eight-year-old Angie, days are often long, lonely --and sometimes scary. Angie lives in an upper West Side apartment in New York with her mother, who is divorced and works full-time. Angie's mother worries about her young daughter coming home to an empty house after school. She leaves notes for Angie to do her homework and her chores and sometimes to start dinner. And then she makes phone calls to check up -- to find out how Angie is getting along and often just to say: "I love you."

Recently Angie thought she saw a man following her home after school. She panicked and started to run. Finally she reached the apartment, all out of breath, and managed to get her key in the door. She rushed into the apartment and called her mother.

Now Angie's mother is more worried than ever. She had a friend walk Angie home from school for a couple of days. The man didn't appear again. But there are so many reports of young children being followed and molested that Angie's mother is trying to tighten the reins. She has warned her daughter not to talk to strangers. Angie is instructed to go straight home from school and call promptly to report that she is safe.

Angie has also been guided on use of the stove and electric appliances. Many home fires are attributed to unattended young children, fire officials say.

Angie has a mother who cares -- one who would like to be home after school to greet her youngster, hear about her school day, her problems, her delights. But she can't. She needs to work.

Angie and her mother are products of a changing American society -- one which leaves 2 million school-age youngsters on their own after school and often during holidays and vacations. And one in which the number of working parents is fast exceeding those who stay home with their children.

Angie is a "latchkey" child -- a term defining a child who has a house key dangling from a chain around the neck and trudges home after school to an empty house. Sometimes a parent has set up an agenda for homework, house chores, and leisure-time activities. More often there is none. then television becomes the Not. 1 child-minder. The lure of the streets and delinquent or pre-delinquent activities too frequently fill the vacuum.

The problems of all the Angies are becoming a big challenge for American society. About one-third of the 44 million school-age children in the United States have mothers who work full-time. Some 13 million are cared for by relatives or neighbors in the setting of private homes --what is classified as family day care. About 1.7 million belong to some kind of before-school and after-school program.

But about two million children -- the true latchkey children -- are left to fend for themselves before and after school during the hours when no parent is at home.

About 7 percent of school-age children never answer the school bell at all.

These figures, compiled from Bureau of the Census and Congressional Budget Office statistics as well as studies of the Children's Defense Fund and other agencies, are admittedly inexact. Wendy Gray, an associate of the Wellesley College-based national School-Age Child Care Project, says that there are strong indications that many six-year-olds are in the "care" of seven- and eight-year-old brothers and sisters after school.

Evidence also exist that many parents are extremely reluctant to report to authorities (Census Bureau included) that they leave their young children unattended during the day.

At worst, the latchkey child is a heartrending case of abuse and abandonment -- a ticking time bomb for the future. Even at best, the latchkey child soberingly reminds an adult of all those marginal degrees of loneliness, idleness, and jeopardy that can afflict even the most affluent home when no parent is there.

The mere physical presence of a parent is, of course, no guarantee of love and nurturing attention. But until the dramatic figure of the latchkey child surfaced in the national consciousness. Americans have been slow to acknowledge the revolution in child care that is taking place, and the urgent need for institutional alternatives when the family is headed by a single parent or both parents are working.

Simply in quantitative terms the problem is going to get worse before it gets better, experts warn. Dana Friedman, women's advocate an specialist in the area of business involvement in day care, says: "Presently . . . the demand for child care far exceeds the supply. By 1990 this disparity will increase significantly unless there is considerable expansion of child-care facilities. Eleven million more women will enter the labor force during the next decade."

This reporter talked with parents, children, teachers, and day-care personnel across the country. He observed firsthand the alternatives to the latchkey child -- the school-based, public, and private programs offered in Denver, Oakland, Santa Monica, Houston, Austin, New York City, Marietta, Ga., Fairfax County, Va., and Sunnyvale, Calif.

His overall conclusion:

The profound, though often unacknowledged debate among American parents about their responsibilities to their children must be recognized, and the consequences of any ensuing changes in attitude must be met with responsible alternatives. The children must not be left to their latchkeys.

The suppressed emotions on the subject run deep. Historically, Americans have felt that children -- particularly preschoolers -- should be cared for full-time by parents, preferably their mothers. This arrangement was considered integral to effective child-rearing and family cohesiveness. This view still has strong advocates, especially among church groups and political conservatives. It is more broadly supported in terms of infant care -- even by those who advocate the advancing of opportunities for women in the workplace.

In fact, a recent survey of 3,000 college women, conducted by Brown University, shows that although the large majority of these coeds are career-bent, 27 percent believe that mothers shouldn't be working at all when their children are between two and five years old. Fifty percent advocate part-time work; another is 16 percent chose full-time employment.

Wendy Gray points out that day care in the US, despite growing demands for it today from virtually all segments of the population, has emerged with a stigma. She explains that day nurseries in the 19th century were set up, in part, to provide for "day orphans" -- as the children of working mothers were labeled.

"Children of working mothers were viewed as underprivileged and handicapped because the existence of family problems meant that a mother was forced to work, " she points out.

Only World War II and the urgent need for Rosie the Riveter and her female counterparts to bolster the war effort in US defense plants made child care outside the home socially acceptable. Through the Lanham Act federal funds were provided for day care. Over 300,000 preschool and school-age youngsters were enrolled until 1946 in more than 8,500 programs in the schools. But when fathers returned from the battlefields, many expected that mothers would return to their "proper place" in the home.

During the era of the New Frontier and War on Poverty that followed, day care became an issue championed largely by political liberals. It was tied to aid to dependent children, food stamp, and federal lunch programs -- all bent on serving the poor.

Although the role of day care, in and out of the schools, was slowly changing from "custodial" care to one emphasizing "learning skills," political lines began to be drawn.

Many conservatives frowned on the proposed national legislation in the early 1970s, sponsored by then US Sen. Walter F. Mondale and Rep. John Brademas, to establish a Federal Child Care Corporation. The bills were perceived as smacking of socialism, and even attempting to "sovietize" the schools.

Several versions of the Comprehensive Child Care Development Act were struck down by Congress. One bill was vetoed by President Richard Nixon, who deemed it a "radical piece of legislation" and charged that such a program "would commit the vast moral authority of the national government to the side of communal approaches to child-rearing over and against the family-centered approach."

More recent attempts to enact federal child care legislation, as well as to ratify Health and Human Services regulations for child care, have also hit bumpy political roads. Sen. Alan Cranston of California, long an advocate of children's issues, failed to get congressional approval of a bill in 1979 that would have helped states expand child-care services. Access would have been based on need, taking into account family size, income, and single-parent households.

Day-care advocates couldn't agree on various provisions of the act, and President Carter early opposed it --causing the California Democrat to withdraw his bill.

While most day-care lobbyist have written off their chances to get broad funding from the federal government in the forseeable future, they now care cautiously optimistic that Congress will approve an increase in income tax credits for working parents who avail themselves of child care. A bill by Rep. Barber B. Conable of New York, a Republican, would in some cases increase the current credit ceiling from 20 percent to as much as 50 percent of a family's day-care expenditure, depending on income. The maximum amount of day-care expenses against which this credit could be claimed would be $2,400 for one child; $4,800 for two or more.


they may have to settle for the Conable offering, which now is getting some bipartisan support. "Let's face it," sadly exclaims one lobbist. "It's now the only game in town."

Meanwhile, those who seek a US stamp of approval for day care have little else to cheer about. Federal guidelines for child-care services, penned last year by the Department of Health and Human Services, are now in limbo, at least until July 1. And some advocates privately predict they will die.

Further wholesale budget slashes proposed by President Reagan are sending shocks through the day-care community. There is particular concern over the tightening of eligibility for subsidized school lunches and reduction of benefits to the tune of $1.6 billion on certain aid to families with dependent children and child support programs.

Administration officials insist that these moves would mainly eliminate waste and fraud and not hurt the "truly needy." But children's advocates are more than a little skeptical. "There's a tremendous amount of rhetoric about protecting children," points out the Children's Defense Fund's Ellen Hoffman. "But this just isn't happening."

What is happening?

First and still foremost are the school-based programs, growing like Topsy across the nation. Five to 10 years ago, many school boards and principals rejected after-hours classes as inconsistent with their educational aims and disruptive to school routine. There is still some resistance from the scholastic set and a few local communities. But day-care planners say they have dispelled many of the fears and much of the opposition through well-planned, effective programs. And they are not reluctant to herald their successes through the media and via parent-teacher groups.

School-based day care is tailored to the particular needs of the community, this observer found. Some programs have an ethnic flair.For example, a class in New York's Chinatown mixes with its recreational program an emphasis on Oriental culture. Under the federal food program, a late afternoon "supper" is served. Menus range from American-styled pizzas, "hero" sandwiches, and peanut butter and jelly to rice cakes and bean sprouts. In Oakland's working class Spanish-speaking neighborhood, youngsters learn about their Hispanic heritage to a banjo-strumming of "Look for the Union Label."

Curricula vary among programs, and even within class groups. Most offer a balance of recreation and cultural enrichment. In middle-class white communities, such as Fairfax County, Va., youngsters enjoy a camplike atmosphere with maximum flexibility in planning the day's activities. "Big Toe Day" -- a novel approach to finger-painting -- was a hit here. Meanwhile, in Santa Monica -- where the weather is conducive to outdoor sports -- after-school playground activities hold a high priority. Some programs stress homework, especially where youngsters require remedial help in reading and mathematics.

Parents' participation is broadly encouraged. Many programs hold parents' open houses, potluck suppers, special lectures on child development (including seminars on drugs, child abuse, and safety). Some teachers, however, admit that it is often difficult to get parents to attend events. Their evening time is limited. Some are self-conscious about language difficulties. But in the more affluent communities, like Brookline, Mass., parent boards are the backbone of the extended-day program.

Day-care staff in these school-based operations is usually distinct from regular school staff. However, most meet professional requirements. Teacher aides, CETA workers, and parent paraprofessionals bolster the ranks. Salaries range from minimum wage (now over $3 an hour) for some part-time workers to over recreational curricula. Youngsters tend to view the day-care staff not so much as teachers but as "friends," surrogate mothers, camp counselors, and confidants.

One curly-haired California moppet corrected her mother when she referred to her day-care staffer as "teacher." He's not the teacher," she stressed. "He's the extendedm man."

Parents' fees vary greatly with the programs. Sliding scales are set up for those who earn under the federal minimum and qualify for public subsidies. Denver's Mile High Child Care Association, a nonprofit agency which leases empty classroom space in schools with dwindling enrollments, charges up to $78 a month to those on welfare. Others pay as much as $200 per month for before-school and after-school care. Denver, like many other cities, has a year-round plan, offering care on school holidays and summer vacations.

Contrary to what some may believe, few parents want to get something for nothing, insists Docia Zavitkovsky, director of the Santa Monica Unified School District's children's center. Mrs. Zavitkovsky is a pioneer in day care with over 35 years experience in the field. Her program serves mainly single mothers and their offspring. She can reel off a list of vignettes of children who have been saved from the streets and delinquency and parents who have been snatched from the brink of despair as a result of day-care services.

School-based programs tend to discourage delinquency and crime-related activities in many instances. Almost with a single voice, day-care personnel insist that this is the case. And they offer case studies to bolster their arguments.

For example, Rose Lancaster, executive director of Extend-A-Care Inc. of Austin, Texas, proudly shows a visitor a local press clipping about Edward Byrd, a black youth who is graduating from LBJ High School. He has been nominated for both West Point and the US Air Force Academy. Brought up by a janitor father after being deserted by his mother, Edward Byrd and his brothers were in constant trouble -- housebreaking and setting fires -- before entering Extend-A-Care after school. He gives major credit to a program counselor who befriended him and helped straighten out his life.

"Parents tell us: "We wouldn't know what we would do without you,'" says Mrs. Lancaster. "Yes, we believe we are a delinquency deterrent. Any child will pick up bad habits if he is left for long hours without adult supervision."

What virtually all school-based programs across the US have in common is that they are nonprofit. There are few exceptions. Notable among them is California Youth World's after-school program. Contracted by Sunnyvale schools in the heart of the Bay Area's Silicon Valley, CYW's "for profit" day care has helped boost sagging enrollment in the Lakewood Elementary School, providing more state dollars for general school improvement.

Most of the youngsters are ferried in from surrounding communities by parents who work at electronics firms in Sunnyvale. They attend Lakewood during the day as well as after hours.

CYW's Bill Bradner, who has been in the day-care private enterprise business since 1955, heralds the public-corporate enterprise as a sign of the future. "I've never heard of a private company on school grounds before," Mr. Bradner says. But he thinks it's a grand marriage.

School officials at Lakewood tend to agree. Principal Patricia Bubenik admits that she and her teachers were wary at first. They were mainly concerned about maintaining high academic standards in the after-school programs. "But they [CYW] supported and implemented what we asked for," Mrs. Bubenik says.

CYW experiment has also had the side-effect of tipping back the ethnic scale of Lakewood's enrollment, which had become 54 percent Chicano, Asian, and black. Only 15 percent of the extended-school youngsters are from minority backgrounds.

CYW's profit? Only $15,000 last year. But both the district and the company are talking about adding more classrooms and students next year. "We're looking to the future. And for us, the future is now," says principal Bubenik.

But what about the future of the client: the American child?

When parents look to an institution to play surrogate parent, habit makes them turn most naturally to the school -- alma mater. B ut whether school-based day-care centers can manage the ever-increasing numbers coming to their doors, early and late, is an open and challenging question.

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