When the dismissal bell rings in high schools and middle schools across the country every afternoon, it can mark the end of the day, or a second beginning. The decision is up to the teen-agers: head for home, or stay for extracurricular activities. To parents and teachers, perhaps idealizing their own teen-age memories, the choice can seem black and white. On the one hand, boredom lurks -- long hours spent watching TV or ``hanging out.'' On the other hand, there is the promise of discovering new talents and making new friends -- of continuing another kind of education on your own terms, in your own favored direction.
Yet according to a number of educators who spoke to The Christian Science Monitor, a surprising number of students are choosing to take off at the sound of the bell, adding still another new dimension to the changing pattern of American family life.
``So many kids today don't have anything to do after school,'' says Ed Evans, principal of Clearwater (Fla.) High School. ``But they don't get involved in extracurricular activities because no one really emphasizes the importance of them. We do that at the beginning of the year in seminars with incoming freshmen. But you also have to get that push from home to get involved.''
As the number of working parents continues to increase, many educators believe these activities have become even more important.
``We had a very rich resource at our disposal when more parents were at home,'' says Robert St. Clair, principal of Hopkins West Junior High School in Minnetonka, Minn. ``The school and those children have lost a rich teaching and supervisory resource.''
At the same time, he notes, ``the numbers have fallen off a bit for our after-school programs. We have not cut back on offerings. As a matter of fact we're probably doing more. We've added areas like drama. We do video journalism, and we have computer clubs, which we didn't have before. So we've picked up some different kids. But we don't have the same holding power we used to.''
Dr. St. Clair can only speculate about possible causes. ``We can always think about things like MTV,'' he says. ``And a number of homes are unsupervised in the community. Both of those options may be more attractive to kids than what we have to offer. What concerns me is that those activities used to be one of the ways we provided supervision for kids in the 12-to-15-year age bracket.
``You see a lot of vulnerable kids out there,'' he continues. ``They're into experimenting with chemicals and sex. They really do need extra special care, and they're not about to ask for it. We just need good supervision for those kids. The most vulnerable kid is the one who is too old to be dealt with as a child but not old enough to get into the job market.''
The case for extracurricular activities goes well beyond caretaking. According to David Delgado, administrative assistant of student activities for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va., a 1977 American College Testing study shows that involvement in after-school activities is the most common characteristic of successful people.
``It's the whole identity issue -- youngsters finding out about themselves, finding out gifts they have that may not be recognized during the regular part of the day,'' Dr. St. Clair says. ``Some of these activities give them a chance to apply their gifts in other areas. It's also hard to make informal social connections in a traditional classroom. Students have very substantial needs there.''
At a time of increasing emphasis on athletics, clubs can also help nonathletic students find a niche. ``I have a lot of chess kids who would never succeed in sports,'' says Russell Miller, a history teacher and club adviser at Wilson Middle School in Rockford, Ill. ``And for some students the biggest thing in their life is that they are a student council officer, or even just a representative.
``This does help in the socialization of many kids,'' he continues. ``It gives them some place to go, though it also creates problems. Some of the kids can't come to the extracurricular activities because they have to baby-sit with younger brothers and sisters while Mom and Dad work. Sometimes that leads to a bit of a family fight.''
At the high school level, after-school jobs become the biggest reason for not participating.
``School gets out at 2:30,'' notes Mr. Evans. ``Students can be at a place of work at 3. A lot will work until 8 o'clock. Some will go in at 4 and work until 10. It's amazing the amount of time they spend at work. They don't have a lot of time for extracurricular activities.''
The changing economic conditions that make after-school jobs more common also affect the cost of extracurricular programs.
``The one thing that is on the decline is money being used for activities,'' Mr. Delgado says. As school budgets in various communities have been cut back, clubs have been forced to find new ways to pay for trips and equipment.
``Most of these activities are financed by having kids do fund-raisers,'' Mr. Miller says. ``So when those kids come up to your door with a box of candy and you're saying, `Do I really want to buy another one?' you're probably supporting a chess group or a theater group or student council.''
David Anderzon, principal of Rockford's East High School, notes other changes related to economics.
``Foreign language clubs like to take trips abroad over Easter,'' he says. ``But now they're afraid of liability. Liability insurance is so high, and sometimes you can't even find carriers. So now no sponsorship by the Board of Education will take place out of the continental United States.''
Even when money is not a problem, attitudes can be. ``We still have publications, but the caliber of people there has started to wane in the last couple of years,'' Mr. Anderzon observes. ``The dedication isn't there. We don't understand why it's happening. Is there not enough of that responsibility factor piped in from kindergarten through eighth grade? Are kids expecting entertainment now rather than getting in and doing? When you turn off the radio and TV, they're sort of at a loss, because you're not entertaining them. Some kids forget that it's a two-way street.''
What can parents do to spur a child's interest?
Find out from the school what activities are available, educators advise, since students may not be aware of the full range of offerings. Sometimes resistance to joining may be nothing more than reluctance to try something new; other times it grows out of stereotypes -- right or wrong -- about a particular group and its members.
Point out, too, the importance of nonacademic activities for college applications. ``Colleges want to know what students do outside the classroom,'' Mr. Evans says. ``They're looking for well-rounded students who not only have a good grade-point average, but are involved in other things.''
For a small but growing number of teen-agers, a sense of extracurricular activism is beginning to express itself. At Newton North High School in Newton, Mass., students have formed a group called Students and Teachers Organized to Protest Nuclear War. Another student organization sponsors a Hunger Week each fall ``to try to make students aware of hunger and raise money for Oxfam,'' says Marya Levenson, principal. And during February the Afro-American Club holds an annual series of activities for Black History Month, with a focus this year on apartheid.
``I can't say most of the students in this school are organizing these activities,'' Ms. Levenson admits, ``but a small number are, and they raise questions for the others.''