Apathy may doom program for youths Only three sign up for after-school effort

January 21, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

It was supposed to be an answer to the problem of dozens of middle schoolers hanging out at the east Columbia library or sitting alone at home. But because of a lack of interest, a $1,300 program at the Owen Brown Village Center may be canceled before it even starts.

With a state grant from the Office of Crime Control and Prevention, Owen Brown village leaders planned to start a two-hour, twice-a-week program to keep middle school students amused playing board games and putting together puzzles.

Organizers expected the program to draw dozens of youngsters, but only three have registered. If more students don't sign up, organizers say, they may have to return the money at the end of next month.

The lack of interest comes as a surprise to many community leaders. In a county where dual-income families are the norm, there is a growing number of school-aged children with little to do in the afternoons.

"We've heard of kids hanging out at the library, and we thought there was a real need to keep them occupied," said Ruth Bohse, Owen Brown's village manager.

Too old for day care and not old enough to get jobs, many middle school students are classic latch-key children -- heading home alone after school, or finding a place to hang out.

The idle time and lack of supervision, county police and parents say, often lead to trouble.

County libraries, particularly in the east Columbia branch in Owen Brown village, have been regularly jammed with students after school -- many of whom arrive and leave on their own.

On any weekday afternoon at that library, some students can be seen studying quietly, but others -- not so quiet -- are playing on computers, gossiping and joking, on the verge of rowdiness. They are supervised only by busy, harried librarians.

Last year, the Owen Brown Village Board turned down a request from a librarian at the east Columbian branch who asked for money to start an after-school program for middle schoolers. Now the money is there, but there are few interested children.

"It's disappointing that we'd have to give back the money, and we just got it," Bohse said. "We thought we had a good idea. We interviewed six leaders for the program and we were waiting for the kids to come and tell us what games they wanted."

The program was scheduled to run from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday. Organizers say they sent out nearly 600 fliers touting the program to students at nearby Owen Brown Middle School in hopes that many students could walk to the village center after school.

There are only two full-scale, after-school programs -- serving about 60 students -- available to the more than 9,000 middle school students in the county. One is at Clarksville Middle School; the Columbia Association runs another at Oakland Mills Village Center.

Some parents and students criticize the proposed Owen Brown after-school program because it would meet only two days a week while many working parents need a five-day-a-week program. Students complain that the program -- like many other after-school programs -- would be too structured.

"We're looking at today's kids in yesterday's light," said Wanda Hurt, a Columbia Council member from Owen Brown. "Kids complain there's nothing going on, but they don't want to come to organized programs. They'd rather just 'hang out.' "

Pub Date: 1/21/98

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