It’s 3 p.m. Do you know where your children are?
An Afterschool Alliance survey sought to find out the answer to this question across the country, and the results led the organization to call for more funding for quality activities for school-age children after the last bell of the day rings.
The survey — a poll of more than 30,000 families conducted mostly through online questionnaires — concluded that there has been a steady increase in the number of children who participate in after-school programs, defined as an activity that a child attends regularly “in a supervised, enriching environment.” (It excluded sports and hobby clubs.)
But there also has been an increase in “unmet need” based on the number of parents who say they would enroll their child in an after-school program if availability, expense or transportation were not an issue, according to the survey. That need leaves too many students unsupervised or in unstructured time, which experts say can lead students into trouble.
“Despite the increase, we found that the country is not coming close to meeting that demand,” said Jodi Grant, executive director of Afterschool Alliance, which advocates for after-school programming. “This study is a call to action for all levels of government, for philanthropy, for businesses . . . to do more to support after-school programs.”
Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined Grant in calling for more after-school funding. The actor-politician said he became interested in the issue when he visited schools as chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in the early 1990s.
“And I saw the kids leaving the schools . . . many of them were then drifting around and I was always wondering what’s happening to those kids,” Schwarzenegger said. It was the inspiration for what he called his personal “after-school program crusade.” He campaigned vigorously for after-school programs in California and started a charity to provide programming. He said federal funding for after-school programming — which comes in a variety of forms — should be increased, but acknowledged “that’s easier said than done.”
Nancy L. Deutsch, an associate professor of education at the University of Virginia who is hosting a conference on after-school programming this week, said she doesn’t think there has been enough focus on what children do after school, hours that can become the venue for such activities as art and music that have been pushed out of the school day. After-school activities also can help children stay on a path to success, she said.
“The hours between 3 and 6 p.m. are the time when most youth are most likely to engage in risky behavior,” Deutsch said. “If we don’t invest in those hours, we’re both missing opportunity and increasing risk.”
The organization put the District at the top of the list in two categories: The survey found that the city has the highest percentage of children participating in after-school programs, but it also leads the nation in the percentage of families with an “unmet need” for an after-school program. About a third of District children participate in after-school programs, but two-thirds of families told the group that their children don’t have access to such programs, either because they don’t exist, they’re too expensive or their children have no safe way to get to them.
In the District, the public school system has 59 elementary and middle schools that have after-school programming underwritten with Title I funding, federal dollars given to schools with a high percentage of poverty. Approximately 7,000 children participate in those programs, and 2,000 more students participated this year than last year, according to a spokeswoman for D.C. schools.
The survey showed that neighboring Maryland and Virginia had fairly low after-school participation rates, with 16 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
But low participation rates don’t necessarily mean students are idle after school. The survey did not capture children who were in the care of parents or babysitters after school, or those who are shuttled from violin lessons to soccer practice, activities that can be equally enriching.
But the report did find that one in five children were unsupervised during after-school hours. Although the majority of those were high school students, the group estimated that as many as 800,000 elementary school pupils are on their own after class.
“That’s unacceptable,” Grant said. “We can do better. We have to do better.”
Deutsch, at U-Va., said it is critical to look at those who don’t have access to programs; the report said that half of low-income households would have their children in a program if it were feasible. And they might be the ones who would benefit most from programming.
“High-quality preschool . . . makes a particular impact for kids who are in more under-resourced communities,” she said. “My gut says that’s true for after-school programs, too.”