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.
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.
"I really thought when they got older, I could go back to work full time, but it really doesn't work that way," said S.K. Whang, a single mother in Vienna whose children are 9, 12 and 14 and who works out of her home. Whang was at the Vienna Community Center last week checking out a new after-school program for middle schoolers at Club Phoenix, the facility's teen center.
Whang said she would be uneasy leaving even her 14-year-old son, Paul, home alone. She said she planned to sign him up for the Club Phoenix program. "I need help," she said.
The county's recent initiative grew out of the work of the Fairfax Partnership for Youth, a coalition of county agencies, nonprofit organizations, law enforcement officials and faith-based organizations established by the Board of Supervisors that has been pushing for beefed-up after-school programs for middle schoolers for several years.
The county government has also kicked in money. For the last several years, the Board of Supervisors has allocated funds -- last year it was $145,000 -- for some after-school programs at middle schools. About 3,400 students participate.
Yet, partnership officials said, they believe those programs are serving only 12 percent of the students who need them. They also said the programs need to be five days a week, staying open until parents get home from work, usually by 6:30 p.m.
The issue caught the full attention of county officials earlier this year because of increased reports of gang violence. Law enforcement officials estimate that Northern Virginia is home to as many as 2,500 gang members and that increasingly younger children are targeted for gang recruitment.
"We realized that we needed to have programs for kids to be in after school -- that wandering the streets is not a good option," said School Board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock).
After-school programs with adult supervision can help keep kids from being tempted by gang life, experts said.
"It is a very promising approach -- there's no question about it," said James Howell, a researcher for the National Youth Gang Center in Tallahassee. Research shows that kids typically start hanging out with gang members when they are 11 or 12 -- "younger than you'd think" -- and start joining gangs when they are 13 or 14, Howell said.
Added Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D): "These 12- to 14-year-olds, they are ripe for the picking in terms of gang recruitment, and that's precisely where, frankly, we have the least amount of programming."
"I think there ought to be an active program at every single one of those [25 middle] schools every day of the week," said Connolly, a fervent supporter of expanding after-school programs for that age group.
The rebirth of intramural athletic programs Monday was an important first step, officials said. Emery, coordinator of the county's initiative, said other programs would follow as officials evaluate the success of the sports program and increase funding for others.
Luther Jackson Middle School in the Falls Church area plans to expand its sports offerings to the 300 kids who participate in its three-day-a-week after-school program, with soccer matches, volleyball games and eventually softball, said Principal Carol Robinson.
Still, she said she wishes the program could run five days a week. "But transportation is a big expense" if the school had to bus the kids home that many days, Robinson said.
After-school programs for middle schoolers need to be different from those at elementary schools, where most children are content with some time on the playground and arts and crafts projects, experts said. Adolescents demand more variety.
At the Hideaway, an after-school teen center program in the South County Government Center on Route 1, teenagers have a certain amount of influence over activities. A teen council meets regularly, and monthly teen "speak outs" allow kids to tell the center's staff what they need and want in the program.
The Hideaway program sees about 60 adolescents each weekday afternoon, most of them middle schoolers, and offers a fitness room with treadmills and exercise bikes, a game room with pool and Ping-Pong tables, a big-screen TV, a kitchen and a computer room.
"We listen to them," said Malcolm Jones, program director. "We really spoil these kids."
The Reston Teen Center, one of five free after-school programs at county teen centers, is one model school officials said they are examining. Operated by the county Department of Community and Recreation Services, it offers students several choices among activities.
At the Reston center, kids can take part in a twice-a-week football program, as well as hip-hop aerobics, boxing and tae kwon do classes. Or they can chill in the game room, which has pool and Ping-Pong tables. Tutors are available to help with homework.
The kids are picked up from area schools -- Herndon, Langston Hughes and Rachel Carson middle schools and South Lakes High School -- in 15-passenger buses. If they need a ride home, they can get that, too.
Those are the key ingredients for a successful program for young adolescents, experts said -- plenty of varied activities plus some academic assistance.
"It's just fun," said Andy Tasara, 12, a seventh-grader at Langston Hughes who attends the teen center after school. "There is basically everything you can do in normal life. . . . You could live here if you want. There's fun, there's food, there's a homework room, and there's a computer room. And that's all you need."