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The Twilight Zone

Jackson Jones was a latchkey kid. Like so many children, both of his parents worked full-time, and so he was left to care for himself after the school day ended. When he was 9, Jackson began sneaking alcohol from his parent’s liquor cabinet after school. When he was 10, Jackson nearly set his family’s home ablaze when a grease fire broke out while he attempted to fry taquitos. He received second- and third-degree burns on his hands when he tried to smother the rash of heat. By 11, Jackson was taking joyrides in cars stolen from his neighbors’ homes.

While not all latchkey children find their way into the clutches of such serious trouble, Jackson’s story illustrates the possibilities. Some 14.3 million kids (K-12) nationwide are home alone after school — an alarming number considering that the rate of juvenile crime is at its highest peak during the hours of 3-6pm.

Not all children have access to affordable after-school care. And those who do? They are often trapped in a program that doesn’t meet their needs, because the afterschool landscape is a kaleidoscope of local initiatives, with little or no central organizing or governing in place.

In Dallas, Collin and Denton counties, there are nearly 600,000 working moms and dads with children ages birth to 17, equating to a whopping 63 percent of all families in the area. And while you can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from these parents once their children enter school (no more hunting for day-long quality childcare), the problem is, the school day isn’t in sync with the work day, which creates a two- to three-hour gap parents need to fill.

So the question is, what’s a parent to do when caught in the “in between?”

Taking Notice
For most families, afterschool programming offers the best solution. Schools, child-enrichment centers and athletics facilities have traditionally offered some form of afterschool care for children. However, up until a few years ago, the impact of quality care and the integral role it plays in a child’s life seemed only a fringe concern, allowing for “baby-sitting” type services and unstructured programs to dominate the scene.

In the late ’90s and early 2000, a shift began to occur. People in power — in the political, business and advocacy arenas — began to push for improvement and reform. In 2001, as part of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind act, the “twilight” hours of 3-6pm began receiving massive recognition when the federal government allotted millions of dollars in grant money to establish 21st Century Community Learning Centers at schools across the country.

Additionally, major corporations, including Plano-based J.C. Penney, began funneling large amounts of funds to afterschool programs nationwide. In fact, in 2005, J.C. Penney and seven other big businesses accounted for 13 percent of all federal dollars invested.

In 2003, the Afterschool Alliance, a nationwide nonprofit initiative that supports afterschool programs through advocacy and information, formed Afterschool for All: Project 2010, which brings together governors, mayors and other elected officials in an effort to provide, as a nation, quality afterschool programming within the next three years.

Trouble 101
While it all sounds impressive on paper, are these efforts really paying off? Claire Sullivan*, a Highland Park mom of two, says no. “We are pretty disappointed with the program,” she reveals of the afterschool care her young sons receive at their local private school. “It seems to be an afterthought — something they (the administration) didn’t really think through and focus on. It seems more of a necessary evil for those of us who work.”

Sullivan does concede that she is happy with a portion of the program, which is broken into two parts. Two to three days a week, for one hour at a time after school, students can participate in structured, specialized lessons like cooking, yoga and Spanish. However, it’s the remainder of the time that is of concern. “There is no structured activity whatsoever; it’s mostly play time outside, weather permitting, or in the gym,” laments Sullivan. “One of the teachers greeted me a month ago with, ‘Oh, you have the twins — let me get them for you.’ Admittedly, my sons look very similar, but this is someone who has been spending ample time with them each day since August, and she still thinks they are twins? This really raised an alert for me that the program isn’t working.”

While not all parents, nor educators, are willing to “go on the record” to point out flaws in the afterschool programs, they do mutter misgivings, though anonymously (even Sullivan’s name has been changed), about unstructured curriculums, disinterested teachers and rebel-rousing kids who are out-of-control. One local public-school administrator confides that he has heard from dozens of parents over the years complaining about the quality — or lack thereof — of their children’s afterschool care.

Just because a program is available doesn’t mean it’s good or even adequate. Some say the federal government has been slow to shell out the prearranged funds, leaving many programs in precarious financial situations — an occurrence Geraldine Kidwell, state coordinator for 21st Century Community Learning Centers through the Texas Education Agency, is quick to contend is not the case in our area. Others point to, as Sullivan described, a feeling that the programs are an “afterthought.” In fact, afterschool programs are not held accountable by any governing agency.

But that may be changing as momentum to provide safe and nurturing care for all school-age children continues to grow. Take California’s Proposition 49, which is the most aggressive funding ever approved for afterschool initiatives.

Locally, “there’s a real diversity in programming in the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” reports Sue Matkin, Afterschool Alliance ambassador for Texas emeritus. “I think we need to network with each other — do things to leverage our resources and improve the quality. There’s a lot of good quality care available. I don’t want to say it’s all bad, but afterschool programming is somewhat akin to the childcare industry in that pay in many programs is not sufficient to keep and retain the high-quality people that you’d like to have. There’s usually a lot of turnover in afterschool staff.”

Parents and citizens alike have become so concerned with the state of afterschool care that they’re ready to stampede the voters’ booths. In a poll released just after last November’s mid-term elections by the Afterschool Alliance, seven in 10 people surveyed said newly elected Congressional officials should increase funding for afterschool programs. Additionally, 69 percent said they would even support a tax increase to cover the additional costs. (In Tennessee, unclaimed lottery awards are earmarked for afterschool funding.)

The Social Stigma
In the Dallas area, despite the high percentage of dual-earner families, it seems there are still negative connotations about parents, moms especially, who have to take advantage of the afterschool offerings. “I think there are a lot of people in society who still think that moms should stay home, that we should have a Leave it to Beaver society where moms wear the dress and pearls and make dinner every night,” asserts Matkin. “That’s not reality anymore. Moms work all day, too. We have to work on this mindset and see if we can make a difference there.”

But it’s not just moms who feel scrutinized. “It has become obvious that even the kids associate negative feelings with the [afterschool] program,” shares Sullivan. “My 5-year-old complains constantly about having to stay, saying it’s not ‘cool’ and that kids make fun of him.”

Caitlin Ernst, a college student from The Colony and a former teacher’s aide who worked with an area afterschool program in Lewisville ISD, says she, too, has seen signs of discontent. “Every once in awhile, we would have older children become distant and upset because they felt they were old enough to stay at home alone,” she asserts. “They felt that they were able to take on this great responsibility and trust, rather than needing to be under the care of teachers, which, as they said, made them feel like ‘babies.’”

Finding the “Good”
But for every disgruntled child — or parent — there seems to be an entire network of families who praise their afterschool care. In fact, in a DallasChild survey, the overwhelming majority of responding parents were singing the praises of their child’s program. But just what is it these parents have found that others are desperately searching for?

Alexis Anderson, a Richardson mom of two, says there are two key points that have helped her child’s program earn her seal of approval: low teacher-to-student ratios and caring, compassionate instructors. Tamara Gold, a Plano mom of two, says for her, it’s all about location. Her child’s program is perched on campus, meaning there’s no busing to an alternate facility. Lori Plummer, an Allen mom of two whose 6-year-old daughter attends afterschool care at a local gymnastics center, says the benefit lies in the opportunity for activity and physical fitness — something Don-Miguel, founder of the D-FW-based Fit-For-Me Foundation, is lobbying to get into more programs.

“I created this foundation as a way to help address the obesity issue that our young children are facing every day,” shares the entrepreneur, who is working with area nonprofits to create health-and-wellness curriculums for afterschool programs.

But his focus isn’t just in the fitness sector. “The main objectives are education, awareness, accountability and mentoring,” he shares. “When I was growing up, I had the education, but I didn’t have the mentoring. No one ever said to me, ‘I’m going to take you by the hand and show you, if this is something you really want to do, how to accomplish your goal.”

Boo Capers, creator of Capers for Kids in Dallas, which provides theater and drama classes to afterschool programs throughout the area, agrees that having someone to look up to and a positive outlet are paramount in a child’s daily life — especially after the rigorous grind of the school day. “If Mom and Dad aren’t there, and kids don’t know what the right answer is, someone has to help them,” shares Capers. “We’re asking children to make adult decisions, and they shouldn’t have to; they’re children.”

Capers, like so many other afterschool experts, agrees that the local afterschool programs have really “stepped up to the plate” in recent years, adding that, while important, the focus doesn’t always need to be about the business of making grades. “As a society, we’ve got to lighten up and foster imagination in our children in order to foster civilization,” she asserts. “I really don’t think kids have the opportunity to express themselves. Not all kids excel at school, but if you find something they’re good at, their whole behavior can change. We have to teach tolerance, empathy, teamwork, cooperation, collaboration; these are the tools they need to enjoy the human experience.”

While both Miguel and Capers are going the extra mile to provide tailor-made supplemental curriculums that can really inspire a child, not all programs have such offerings. So just what can moms and dads expect when they enroll their student in an afterschool program?

DallasChild surveyed a handful of public and private schools to get an idea about what kind of programming is available in the area. Aftercare provided at private schools is typically supported by the institution itself — meaning the program is onsite and staffed by school educators. The average cost runs about $77 a week, boasts a 10-to-one student-to-teacher ratio and typically includes snacks, homework help, structured activities, free play and a supplemental service offered once a week through a local organization like Capers for Kids.

“We provide a safe and consistent environment for our children,” shares Val Jean Heatly, head of extended day at The Parish Episcopal School in Dallas. “We observe and listen to the children and try to provide activities that will meet the individual needs and interests of each child.”

In the public-school sector, many districts support their aftercare much like the private institutions; others contract the program out entirely through organizations like YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs. (However, typically, the services are available on campus with no busing). If a school is not funded by a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, which provides free care to participating students, parents can expect to pay, on average, about $63 a week. The student-to-teacher ratio hovers around 15-to-1, and the curriculum typically includes a snack, a rotation through various structured and learning activities, homework, tutorials and free play.

“Frisco ISD is committed to providing a safe environment for our children in the absence of their parents, whether that is during the school day or extending beyond regular school hours,” shares Sally Turner, coordinator of special projects for the district, which contracts its afterschool care with AlphaBest and YMCA. “If we can provide a physically safe environment while reinforcing and enriching a student’s educational experience, there is a greater payoff to FISD and society at large later is the student’s life.”

Buyer Beware: It’s Your Child’s Future
While buzz words like specialized programs (think piano classes, scrapbooking and sign language), enrichment activities (in line with the school-day curriculum, yet reinforced in more hands-on activities) and a safe, familiar environment may sound like a blessing to working parents needing to cover the 3-6 p.m. window, many wonder, if there’s a false sense of security. Take for instance the fact that aftercare at many schools is exempt from the stringent standards set in place by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which governs childcare. Instead, many public schools fall under the less-rigorous umbrella of the Texas Education Agency or the National Afterschool Association, while private schools, which are self-monitoring, may be exempt entirely.

With afterschool care, as in life, there are no guarantees, and experts caution parents to pay as much due diligence to the care provided after the bell rings as they did with full-time childcare. Don’t assume because the program is at you child’s school that he will automatically receive the same quality of instruction. Ask before signing on the dotted line: Who will be watching my children? What will they be doing? After enrollment, ask your kids if they’re happy. If they’re not, find out why. Hold the program accountable by discussing your concerns with the site administrator.

“Afterschool care should be a place that’s safe, well-supervised, has a staff who engages the children, provides diversity in programming, has adequate supplies. It should be a place where the kids want to be every day,” offers Matkin. “It’s a parent’s responsibility to drop in and visit every now and then and see what it’s like, see that it’s a controlled environment, not a wild and unruly place. See that there’s a plan in place, that there are kids in various rooms doing various activities and that their time is being well-spent.”

Matkin says parents who have ensured that their child’s afterschool care is of high quality can enjoy the freedom to focus on their work. “They say that at 3:30 in the afternoon, the number of outgoing calls at a lot of businesses is enormous, and it’s mainly parents calling to make sure their kids who go home alone made it safely,” reveals Matkin. “I think if parents don’t have to worry about that, and they know their kids are doing good things and having fun, that makes them a more productive employee.”

Sullivan, who is currently looking for a nanny who can pick up her children after school and shuffle them to extracurricular activities, agrees, adding that when the afterschool situation is on track, so is the family. “Knowing that my children are involved in something they love and look forward to helps to make me feel better about the personal decisions I have made. The better I feel about the program, the better everything seems to flow in our household,” she shares. “We are anxious to give the nanny route a go and see where it leads. We are very hopeful that it will get us all to a better place soon.”

And whether a “better place” comes from a quality aftercare program at your child’s school, a child-enrichment center down the street or even a caregiver, experts across the board agree that, in this day and age, with dangers lurking at every turn, any of these solutions are better than being home alone.

“High-quality afterschool programs keep children safe and help to produce life-changing, lasting benefits, including healthier lifestyles, improved social skills and enhanced academic performance,” asserts Robin Caldwell, director of community relations for J.C. Penney, which operates the J. C. Penney Afterschool Fund. “Much has been achieved in the afterschool arena in the past few years, but there is still much more to do.”