Schools step in to ease day-care strain An old problem increases in magnitude

July 28, 1991|By Wiley Hall 3rd

Three out of four elementary school-aged children in Maryland have mothers in the work force, state officials say. A good percentage of these children need before and after-school care. And once again, the state's public school systems have been asked to fill the breach.

You name the social problem -- AIDS, drug abuse, teen-aged pregnancy, the latchkey children phenomenon -- and public schools across the country are asked to come up with a response," said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

"The miracle is that school systems usually manage to come up with a credible response," Dr. Sava continued. "Even when they are asked to respond without additional resources, they usually manage to come up with something."

School-aged day care for working mothers is a problem that cuts across class, race, and region. It confronts mothers who belong to the middle class, the working class, and on welfare. It is a problem for both two-parent families and single-parent families.

Professional women complain that they find themselves wrestling with issues such as the cost, the availability and the quality of child care when they should be concentrating on their careers. Women on welfare cite their inability to obtain reliable care for their children as one of the major barriers keeping them out of the work force.

"This isn't a new problem -- the first day care was opened here in 1888," said Sandy Skolnick, director of the Maryland Committee on Children. Mothers from black and immigrant families, she noted, have always had to work and have always had to find

someone to look after their children.

"But," said Ms. Skolnick, "we are recognizing that what was a relative trickle 100 years ago, has become a torrent today."

This torrent of need apparently has overwhelmed the traditional day care providers -- especially for infants, children with special health or learning needs, and school-aged children.

In Maryland, an increasing number of public schools have responded to the problem by opening up their doors to students before and after school.

"When I first came here (14 years ago), I noticed that a large number of youngsters were hanging around after school because they had nowhere to go," said Evelyn T. Beasley, principal of Roland Park Elementary School in the city.

"I didn't like the idea that so many parents were unsure what happens to their children while they were at work, but I understood it. As a single parent, I went through the same thing."

Ms. Beasley said her school's program "started as a baby-sitting idea", coordinated by and for parents. But parents have also discovered it gives their children a chance to do their homework, use the library, and interact with other students.

"It can't replace a parent's job, but it supports them," she said.

"Why do schools have to do this?" asked NAESP's June Million rhetorically. "Because they just have to. Parents are knocking on the doors of schools whether schools like it or not," she said.

"And there is a certain logic to it. You don't want to bounce children around from one place to another. You want as much stability in their lives as we can manage."

State officials agree.

But there is a catch -- a painfully familiar catch: the school systems that serve the most affluent communities are most able to meet the demand for child care. But those systems serving poorer communities, despite the best intentions, are falling short.

"Part of the problem with the whole range of issues surrounding the delivery of day care services in Maryland is that we are trying very, very hard not to replicate the inequities of the state education funding system," said Ms. Skolnick.

"But frankly, we aren't entirely successful. Middle class parents have a pretty diverse selection of day care alternatives for their children. Poor families don't."

The discrepancy can be stark.

Baltimore City had 101,360 children under 12 years with working mothers in 1989 but only 80 licensed day care programs for school-aged children (which may or may not be located in the school), according to the Maryland Committee for Children.

Montgomery County, one of the most affluent counties in the country, had 85,502 children under 12 whose mothers worked, and 221 licensed day care programs to serve them.

The pattern repeats itself when comparing programs situated in schools.

For example, Howard County schools have offered on-site after school care for at least 20 years, particularly in the middle class community of Columbia.

Programs exist in each of the 29 schools in the county, run by either the Columbia Association or the county department of recreation and parks.

And just to underscore the point, the county school board ruled two years ago that before and after school programs should be given priority over other programs whenever there is a conflict over space.

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