Amid rising concern about gangs, drug and alcohol use, and even obesity, Fairfax education officials have launched an effort to reach out to the county's 27,000 middle schoolers by offering them more after-school programs.
Later this month, the school system is planning to take a major step by reinstituting intramural athletic programs in the county's middle schools and adding bus service to take the kids home. The county School Board recently voted to spend nearly $1 million to expand after-school programs, targeting middle schoolers as well as elementary school students in grades 4 through 6. Most middle schoolers are in seventh and eighth grade, but about 860 sixth-graders attend county middle schools.
Activities offered at the teen center include the "cyber cafe," where, from left in foreground, Andy Tasara, 12, Deslanee Barksdale, 16, Andy Atkinson, 13, and Janai Williams, 16, chat and draw designs.
(Ryan Anson For The Washington Post)
The school district takes the effort so seriously that officials put an assistant superintendent, Nicholas Fischer, on special assignment to create after-school programs for youths. Fischer will focus on students considered vulnerable to gang recruitment and involvement. School officials also have hired a full-time program coordinator for the initiative, which is aimed at children who often spend several hours alone or with other students after school until their parents or guardians get home from work.
"There's just a tremendous gap in support and services for those kids," said Mark Emery, the program coordinator. "Most of them are getting home at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and mom and dad aren't there until 6 or 6:30 at the earliest . . . [and] for some parents, only for a short time before they head out for their second job. It's a real challenge."
For the children of working parents in elementary schools, the county already has a popular before- and after-school child-care program that runs until 6:15 p.m. five days a week at certain schools. Parents pay a fee for the service based on their income. And for older teenagers, the high schools offer a full menu of clubs, sports, performing arts and other activities every day after school.
But the lack of programs for middle schoolers remains a gaping hole, county officials say. In the late 1990s, the school system eliminated intramural sports at middle schools in the midst of a budget crisis, and only a few of the county's 25 middle schools currently offer a five-day-a-week program geared to the children of working parents. Most middle schools now provide only brief activities that last until midafternoon two or three days a week.
That's not enough for the children of most working parents.
Jennifer Harrell, a medical office manager whose 14-year-old son, Michael, attends an after-school program at the Reston Teen Center, said the activities at her son's school "last maybe an hour," which she said is inadequate for the child of a single mom who has to work until 5 p.m.
The scene at the teen center on a recent Tuesday afternoon was one that county school officials would like to see more of. The after-school program at the center, which is inside the Reston YMCA, practically vibrated with the combined energy of 40 kids in the first flower of early adolescence.
A sweaty cluster of boys and girls swept up and down the basketball court in a fierce game of hoops. In the "cyber cafe," Obaid Zamani, 13, Cassie Miller, 12, Claire Granger, 13, and Jamarcus Spates, 12, sprawled in padded booths listening to hip-hop on the center's boombox. In the homework room, 13-year-old Brittney Clough puzzled over a school assignment.
"How do you draw a sleepwalker?" she asked tutor Raul Robles, who was bent over 14-year-old Isaac King's Spanish textbook pointing out the word for "dress pants."
Over in the computer room-music studio, Janelle Barksdale, 12, teasingly sprinkled a handful of shredded green paper onto the head of unsuspecting Nick Rose, also 12. Nick jumped up and shook the paper out.
"What are these -- little green bugs?" he asked indignantly, as Janelle chortled.
The young adolescents' need for after-school care comes as a surprise to some working parents, who had assumed their days of worrying about child care would be over by the time their children left elementary school. Now there is a "day-care gap" between early elementary school and high school.