After-school care lacking, study finds

14 million U.S. children are unsupervised, report paid for by nonprofit says

May 20, 2004|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- During the hours when juvenile misbehavior tends to peak -- after the final school bell and before the dinner bell rings -- more than 14 million American children go unsupervised, according to a study of how youngsters spend their afternoons.

One-third of middle school children lack supervision. Eleven percent in kindergarten through 12th grade take part in study, music and other programs after school; three times as many would participate but can't for lack of space or money.

The figures reflect "an unmet need" for afternoon alternatives for the nation's youth, Kathleen Conley, director of urban services for the YMCA of Central Maryland, one of the agencies embracing the preliminary results, said at a news conference yesterday in Washington. The survey of 30,000 households was commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for after-school care.

"We have children going home to empty houses, empty communities," Conley said. "We know it from the number of kids on waiting lists ... that parents want more."

The survey confirmed conventional wisdom that many children must manage on their own after school. And it revealed surprises, such as that an estimated 1 percent of kindergartners -- about 42,000 children -- are left unsupervised for several hours after school.

In state-by-state breakdowns of interviews, the responses of Maryland families fell roughly in line with national averages.

Conley called for greater federal funding for private and public after-school programs so more students can take part.

"Data like this is starting to be able to prove the case of prevention," she said. Conley described two successes: a once-struggling Baltimore high-schooler who began to thrive after years of after-school chess lessons and math tutoring, and Stephanie Mickens, a shy girl-turned debate champ.

"Beyond the walls of school, I learned to debate," said Stephanie, 13, a pupil at Diggs-Johnson Middle School in West Baltimore, who plans to testify this morning at a Senate committee hearing on after-school care.

Stephanie said she planned to urge lawmakers to appropriate $2 billion that was earmarked by the "No Child Left Behind" education law for after-school initiatives that teach manners, offer tutoring and introduce activities like debate and chess.

Twelve-year-old Jessica Ellison of Baltimore County is frank about how she would spend the hours before her parents come home if she were not involved with the YMCA: "I'd have been watching TV, playing a game."

"And getting in trouble with my friends," said Ellison's classmate Lindsey Jones.

Police, school and legal experts call the hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. "the danger zone," when unsupervised children are most likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, experiment with sex and become involved in crime.

Maryland's secretary of juvenile justice, Kenneth C. Montague Jr., said his concerns extend beyond the young lawbreakers who wind up in police custody and juvenile court. The governor "told me to help `savable kids,'" Montague said. "After-school care does that."

The final report, expected to be released this year, shows little variance by state, said Jen Rinehart, associate director of the alliance.

A sampling of 675 Maryland households found that 62 percent of children spend their afternoons with a parent or guardian and that an additional 10 percent participate in after-school programs.

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