It's 3 p.m. Do you know where your children are?
The city of Boston is determined that the answer to that question will be "yes."
In a move unrivaled by any other US city, Boston is vastly expanding its role as child-care provider, joining with a dozen private groups to ensure that thousands of latch-key kids have adult supervision after school.
The pledge to dedicate $23 million to after-school programs for 5,400 more Boston kids comes as a growing number of cities, worried about unsupervised youths, debate the appropriate government role in providing care.
Some 18 of the 22 major cities that provide after-school services are considering expanding them, according to the Afterschool Alliance. But supporters of such programs herald Boston, along with Chicago, as a leader.
"I'm not aware of any other program that's doing what Boston's doing," says Judy Samelson, acting director of the alliance in Washington. "They've essentially marshalled an entire community around the importance of making the program happen.... They're putting their money where their mouth is."
The reasons cities from Chicago to San Diego are stepping into the child-care business range from perennial concerns about the quality of education to welfare reform, which has put more lower-income parents back into the workforce. But perhaps the greatest impetus is the juvenile-crime rate, which, after years of decline, is showing signs of inching back up.
"The additional after-school programs couldn't have come at a better time," says Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "What we know is that prime time for teenage crime is 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. - after the school bell rings and before Mommy and Daddy get home."
Nationwide, about 7 million school-age children go unsupervised - 5 million of them teenagers. Research shows unsupervised teens are more likely to commit crimes and engage in premarital sex than those with somebody to watch over them after the bell rings, Mr. Levin says.
Nor is it just teens who have no one to go home to. Some 49 percent of children under 6 lack adult supervision in the afternoon, he says.
Boston already has 240 after-school programs, serving 17,000 children. The additional $23 million, an unusual blend of public and private philanthropy, will enable another 5,400 kids to have access to computer labs, karate classes, and a safe place to stay until Mom or Dad gets out of work - usually at a cost to parents much lower than hiring private care. But the waiting list is 15,000 names long.
"Together, the partners see out-of-school time as the next frontier of how we invest in children to help them reach high academic and developmental goals," says Boston Partnership chairman Christopher Gabrieli.
At the Jackson-Mann Community Center, Rene Mattier, a tall woman with an ability to project an air of calm in the face of more than a dozen children, supervises reading time, checks over a girl's homework, and dreams of what her program could do with the extra money.
"I'm looking forward to it," she says with satisfaction. "There's a definite need. Especially for [programs] that are affordable. That's the real problem."
While critics don't question the need for children to be taken care of, they say it's inaccurate to portray after-school programs as a universal panacea.
"One of the reasons you see such a large push is it's an era of budget surpluses," says Darcy Olsen of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. "The money is there, and who wants to be against kids?"
But she questions the use of public funding in the enterprise. "With such strong private support, why is it that the government needs to be involved at all?" Ms. Olsen asks.
And while "anything that is really offering options for both kids and parents is really good ... one of the things we don't seem to able to discuss is options that would allow parents to be home more," says Nancy Wooden of the National Parenting Association in New York. She says parents in focus groups ask her how they're supposed to spend more time with their children when they're in school from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"This is not at all to suggest that after-school programs aren't good options," Ms. Wooden says. "[But] so many of the structures we have now really end up separating parents and kids."
After-school programs should not be seen as replacing school or family participation, says Patrice DiNatale, principal of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. "Parents are full partners. They must continue to be interested in their children's education. They must have high expectations for their children, nurture them, and most importantly be advocates for them."
And some of the parents at the Jackson-Mann center see the program as a real help - both logistically and academically.
Roger Arias, a third-grader, spends a few hours at the center every afternoon - enough time to let off some steam and finish his homework. That's a big help for his mom, who's not fluent in English.
And Tim Timson, there to pick up his second-grade son, Tim Jr., says he appreciates the program's racial and economic diversity almost as much as its extended hours.
"Since [Tim's] been coming here, he's shown improvement in his day-to-day activities ... not only academically but in his social interactions," says Mr. Timson. Not that he's not grateful for the extended hours, especially since Tim's classes are over at 1:20 p.m., long before he gets out of work. "It helps out ... in terms of not having to find a babysitter or some place for him to stay."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor