The other evening we went to a cookout at my children's elementary school. It was the final evening function of the year for the School Age Child Care program that my daughter attends and, after a year's experience, I can report that if ever there was an answer to working parents' child-care problems, the SACC program is it.

In Fairfax County, the programs are run by the county's Office for Children and are located in various elementary schools around the county. The sessions open before school to accommodate parents who go to work early and close at 6:15 p.m. My daughter, who is 5 and finishing kindergarten, attends the after-kindergarten session, which takes care of children from midday until school is out, and the after-school session, which is attended by the older children as well.

The children play games, go outdoors, take field trips, use the school gym, do a wonderful variety of crafts, listen to music and stories, play "dress-up" with various costumes stored in the SACC room and take care of gerbils that arrive mid-year. Older children have a chance to help teach younger children how to do things. There are two patient, energetic and creative teachers who routinely share funny anecdotes about the children when their parents arrive to pick them up.

They know about the children's families, their siblings, the children's problems and worries and if there is anything about the child's day the parents should know, they are told. The program is open on teacher training days and it also holds three summer sessions.

Roberta Newman, who runs the county-wide program, said it has served about 1,500 children this year, and there is usually a waiting list of 200 to 300 children. The program will be expanded with five new centers next year so it will be in 51 elementary schools.

Michelle Seligson, who is the director of the SACC project for the Wellesley Center for Research on Women, said the program in Fairfax County is "one of the best in the country. It's outstanding." She points to the high quality of the staff, the emphasis on programming activities for the youngsters and the fact that the program serves children who have special needs.

No one knows how many communities have developed SACC programs, but Seligson said they are now in every state. "We've been working on it since 1979," she said. "We've watched an enormous groundswell of support for this kind of care."

She said the biggest growth is occurring in partnership arrangements, in which schools agree to host programs run by outside groups. "In many communities you'll find the Y or even groups of parents starting the programs and the schools making space available. Day-care centers can contract with schools. Some schools are running their own programs, but that's not widespread.

"States are now passing legislation on school-age child care and making some money available for the development of programs," she said. "They have an awareness that more funding needs to be put into defraying cost for low-income parents." New York State, for example, made $300,000 available in seed money for new programs last year, and Indiana and Wisconsin also have made funds available, she said.

"A lot of these new efforts to start programs are being driven by a deep awareness that children should not be asked to take too much responsibility for themselves or their siblings." But the efforts to provide care for school-age children in the schools has met with some opposition, she said. "There are people who feel the school has no business doing day care even when the school isn't really doing it."

A Senate Appropriations subcommittee is considering a request for $12 million to help communities set up SACC programs and $8 million to help them set up information and referral systems for various forms of dependent care. While the House has no similar provisions pending in its version of the supplemental appropriations bill, Senate strategists hope to include it in the Senate version and have it accepted in the conference committee.

Estimates are that there are between 6 million and 7 million "latchkey" children who are at home alone some portion of the day while their parents work. While Seligson points out that many older elementary school children are reluctant to be seen as being in day care, these programs are convenient, reliable and affordable means of caring for hundreds of thousands of younger children.

They work, and they should become an established part of an American system for child care.