Say goodbye to 'latch-key' kids

Educational after-school programs flourish

For a glimpse at the future of public education, step inside the Gum Springs Community Center in Alexandria, Va.

There's not an empty seat in the computer clubhouse and the place crackles with excitement. The new furniture is a gift from corporate sponsors on the Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC). The five new volunteers - already everyone's best friend after only a few weeks on the job - are on loan from AmeriCorps VISTA and the local YMCA.

Then notice the time: It's 6:30 p.m. The kids were bused here straight from school, and many will stay until the lights go out at 8 p.m.

As many as 15 million American children go home from school to an empty house, according to the US Department of Education. It's the most dangerous time of day for a kid. And there's a growing public demand to come up with safe and constructive activities to bridge the gap between school and the return home of working parents.

As a result, new after-school experiments are beginning to take hold across the country.

*Washington is ratcheting up funding for its school-based 21st Century Community Learning Centers, now established in 468 communities and 49 states.

*Last week, a dozen nonprofit organizations, major corporations, and federal agencies launched PowerUP, an initiative to enhance digital technology in schools and community-based after-school programs.

*In a Nov. 2 speech, presidential candidate George W. Bush pledged to encourage and expand the role of charities and faith-based groups in after-school programs. The Department of Education insists that such efforts are already under way (see story, below).

Greater parental demand

Moreover, there's been a clear shift in what parents expect from after-school programs, experts say.

"Ten years ago, baby-sitting or just milling around was adequate. But now parents want an enriched learning environment in these programs: They want tutoring and mentoring, help with homework, supervised recreation, and work on the computer," says Terry Peterson, senior adviser to US Secretary of Education Richard Riley.

More than 28 million school-age children have both parents or their only parent in the workforce. In addition, FBI statistics show that children are more likely to commit crimes or be victims of crime in the after-school hours (between 2 and 8 p.m.).

Some 93 percent of Americans now favor providing school-based after-school programs in their own community, according to a recent survey by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. In response to such demand, Congress set aside $1 million to fund pilot after-school programs in 1997. The demand for funding was so great that Congress jumped its appropriation to $40 million in 1998, and then to $200 million in 1999. This year, legislators are considering another big increase to $600 million in the fiscal year 2000 budget.

But even with this level of increase, federal funding only begins to meet the demand. "With $600 million, we could serve 1.5 million children, in roughly 5,000 community centers," says Mr. Peterson.

That's why public/private partnerships, such as the Gum Springs Community Center, are beginning to play such a crucial role in meeting the need for quality after-school care. Last week, the center opened a new computer lab, one of four PowerUP pilot sites.

"It was a Pokmon frenzy around here opening day," says Vista volunteer James (J.J.) Fryar, referring to a popular cartoon Web site. "But today we've moved to structured activities."

"Before I came here, I used to go home and take a nap, watch TV, or lay down on the couch," says first-grader Cheyenne Dinger, who just got her new password and is already flying through the Web sites appropriate for the elementary level.

(When she stumbles onto a teen site, her screen reverts to this message: "Web restricted. You do not have access to this page as a result of the current parental control centers.")

Some kids are learning how to manipulate digital pictures of themselves. They will print them out and take them home.

In another room, Mr. Fryar is helping students get started on new boxes of Lego Mindstorms robot discovery sets. The ages around the table range from 8 to 16, and the older kids seem to enjoy helping the younger ones.

"I always wanted to become an architect, and this helps. You can build things here," says high school student Tony Portillo. "If I weren't here, I'd be at home doing nothing," he adds.

The robot project is an idea the staff picked up during a recent visit to the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. By the end of the week, the staff hopes to have the robot up and running - and able to carry a bottle of water across the room with a few keystrokes of the computer.

Community need: computers

In 1996, the center had been close to closing its doors. Finances were in trouble and community support had waned. The staff polled the neighborhood to find out what people wanted in an after-school program. Computers topped the list.

"So, we repositioned our funding to do what the community was requesting," says Ingrid Parris-Hicklin, who supervises community centers for the county of Fairfax. What made it possible was the help of corporate and foundation sponsors such as PowerUP and the NVTC, as well as local schools, churches, and libraries, she adds.

The kids say they love having something fun to do after school.

"I'm never by myself here. If someone tries to do things that are bad, they'll protect kids," says grade-school student Victoria Llewellyn.

"Kids sometimes have nothing to do," she adds. "It's not good to waste your time and not do anything. Here they always have something for you to do."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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