ASA HILLIARD BELIEVES that taking care of America's children is everyone's job -- childless folks, parents and grandparents. He also believes that the responsibility extends to institutions as well as to individuals.
And when Hilliard, an Atlanta educator, talks about care, he means more than meeting a child's physical and educational needs. He means giving every child identity, values, spirituality and sense of community.
"When I see a child, I see my own children. And if that's so, I cannot allow him to fall between the cracks," Hilliard told the nearly 600 child care workers and teachers attending Mayor Kurt Schmoke's Third Annual Child Care Conference Saturday at the Convention Center.
"All of us are responsible for socializing all of the children. We must bring children to manhood and womanhood, not . . . to the SAT," he said.
Hilliard, who has been teaching for more than 35 years, is a professor of urban education at Georgia State University. He is the father of four and the grandfather of three.
His speech closed a day of workshops that gave many of the city's family day care providers and child care center workers a chance to explore topics that varied from non-competitive games to homeless youth. Sponsored by the Mayor's Office of Children and Youth, the conference focused on school-age child care.
Hilliard looked at after-school care, which he defined as ''the rest of the 24 hours'' when schools are not open. Recalling his own boyhood in a single-parent family in Texas, ''there was almost no time,'' he said, ''when we weren't covered by somebody who cared for us deeply.''
But today ''something is dreadfully wrong,'' he said, noting that many children spend chunks of time without adult supervision or concern. ''After-school child care is not something that can be left to chance. Kids' lives don't shut down at 3:30.''
Such care must include, he added, not only individual providers but also recreation centers, churches and community service organizations. Schools, too, he said, should be more involved. ''Some of them are going to have to stay open a little longer.''
Individuals and institutions must give children what their own families, often beleaguered by economic hardships and changing values, cannot do alone.
''If we don't give [young people] an appropriate purpose, someone will give them an inappropriate purpose,'' he said, citing the popularity and influence of youth gangs.
Gangs understand child psychology ''better than we do,'' he said, often giving young people the sense of identity and belonging they crave. ''When you don't have something for them at 3:30, the gang has something for them.'' The gang loves and cares for them and gives them the identity ''we have failed to create,'' he said.
Gangs know what to do, ''but they are headed in the wrong direction.''
The right direction, for Hilliard, includes schools that develop character as well as curriculum, community services that lend a hand to families and a public policy that has children's needs at its core.