A growing movement of educators, working parents, community groups and crime fighters is trying to harness the hours after school for everything from elevating reading scores to quelling violence to supporting the new schedules of parents who have left welfare for work.
Those so-called "dangerous hours" have emerged as the latest social target for large foundations and government bureaucrats, who see that part of the day as central to much that goes wrong for children and much that could go right.
The weekday stretch between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. -- when some 10 million children are out of school and alone while their parents are still at work -- is the time for most of the trouble young people get into: having sex, drinking and taking drugs, committing crimes or, at the very least, watching far too much television.
The U.S. Department of Education will spend more than $450 million on after-school programs in 2000 -- more than double the 1999 amount. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has set up an after-school snack program. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation, among others, have made after-school a top priority, contributing $180 million between them.
In New York, philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Institute started a nonprofit corporation and funded it with $25 million for programs based in schools. In Maryland -- where an estimated 350,000 children are left unsupervised after school -- the Family League of Baltimore last week awarded $3.3 million in grants for 25 programs in the city, raised from city government and foundations like Soros' through the Safe and Sound Campaign.
Joy G. de Foos, the author of two books on expanded school programs, calls the interest -- and the money behind it -- "very significant."
"I believe that within a short period of time all schools will operate with extended hours and welcome community functions," she said. "Once the middle-class people need something, like child care, it happens."
If the Baltimore programs do well on an evaluation, they'll receive the same amount in each of the next two years. The Open Society Institute's Baltimore office has been the largest investor in the Safe and Sound effort, contributing $6.25 million, with another $750,000 in grants to expand arts programs for youth after school.
Included in the Safe and Sound grants is a new organization -- B. Bravo for Youth -- intended to train staff and encourage development of good programs across the city.
"How long have we been talking about after-school programs? Years," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, speaking at a Safe and Sound grant ceremony. "Now we're going to do something about creating them.
"We're going to monitor every week the progress we're making. We're going to monitor every dollar. We're going to monitor every hour."
Meanwhile, a state task force of after-school providers, officials, child advocates, students and parents released a set of standards for programs to apply for $10 million in after-school grants approved by the legislature last year. That's in addition to an eightfold increase in the budget for state after-school programs over the past five years.
But new issues are emerging with the heightened interest. Should after-school time be spent on improving academic performance, or encouraging children to find a vocation or cultural interest? What will get teen-agers to stay after school? What, if anything, should parents have to contribute?
At Curtis Bay Elementary School's program, run by the nonprofit Child First Authority, parents pay with their time -- four hours of taking kids on field trips, working the phones or passing out snacks every eight-week session.
In return, their children are occupied for three hours after school, doing homework and getting extra tutoring help. The last hour is reserved for recreational activities like drama, kickball and arts and crafts.
Nicole Gavin, a sixth-grade teacher by day, leads the drama group in the afternoon -- and says she sees a markedly different side of her students. After school, she said, both teachers and pupils let their hair down a bit -- and begin to appreciate one another more.
"I think that a lot of the kids that have difficulty sitting in class and are a little more energetic really excel in drama," she said.
Kim Sullivan, who has three children in the program, finds it a godsend. In addition to saving $60 to $75 a week on baby sitters, she has seen a change in her son and two daughters. "It's helped their reading, their self-esteem," she said.
Making programs cool enough to attract young teens -- old enough to stay home alone and eager to prove they're independent -- is another matter entirely.
At Lindale-Brooklyn Park Middle School in Linthicum, an after-school program for seventh- and eighth-graders markets itself as the "Teen Travel and Adventure Club."