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First National Study Of After-School Care Cites Progress, Pitfalls

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The "rapidly growing'' number and variety of before- and after-school programs based at schools and other sites have expanded opportunities for working parents to find a safe haven for their children during nonschool hours, a new federal study shows.

But it also suggests that the potential to serve more poor families and to enhance all children's development has been limited by a reliance on paid tuition, a lack of access to child-friendly space, high staff turnover, and inadequate programming for children beyond 3rd grade.

The study, which was sent to Congress last month, offers the first broad national look at before- and after-school programs. It was conducted by the RMC Research Corporation, the School-Age Child Care Project at Wellesley College, and Mathematica Policy Research Inc. under contract to the U.S. Education Department.

The report comes at a time when concerns about children left home alone are drawing renewed attention in the news media. At the same time, policymakers are highlighting the need to expand the functions of schools to address the needs of children beset by social ills and to offer enrichment to all children.

Recognition is growing among educators as well as child-care experts that "we are missing a big opportunity if we don't pay attention to the 80 percent of a school-age child's waking hours that are not spent in school,'' Barbara Reisman, the executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign, said last week.

The New York City-based advocacy group is co-sponsoring a conference with the Council of Chief State School Officers this month to craft an "action plan'' for comprehensive, coordinated child care and education.

1.7 Million Children Enrolled

The new study, based on telephone interviews with officials of a nationally representative sample of 1,300 programs, describes the prevalence, structure, and features of formal programs that offer enrichment, academic instruction, recreation, and supervision for children ages 5 to 13. The programs offer various combinations of care before and after school and during vacations and holidays.

The study includes case studies of 12 programs in Dade County, Fla.; Oakland, Calif.; and Indianapolis.

About 1.7 million children in kindergarten through grade 8 were enrolled in a total of 49,500 programs in in 1991, the report says. Of those youngsters, 601,400 were in one of the 13,500 programs based in public schools. The school-based programs represented only 35 percent of all enrollments and 28 percent of the programs over all, but public schools were one of the three most common locations and sponsors.

For-profit corporations and private, nonprofit organizations were the other two most common sponsors. Others included nonprofit religious and nonreligious private schools; state, county, and local governments; church or religious groups; private, nonprofit social or youth agencies; colleges and universities; and parent groups.

Programs based in schools, the report notes, are as likely to be sponsored by other community agencies as by schools themselves.

Most Care Is After School

Highlighting the relatively recent growth of before- and after-school programs, the study found that the average program run by one of the most common sponsors is less than 10 years old. The average program sponsored by a public school is just over six years old.

While growing numbers of districts are operating such programs, Hawaii is believed to be the only state to mandate and finance low-cost after-school care based in schools.

Indiana mandated in 1991 that all districts begin offering after-school programs by this school year, but many have sought state waivers.

After-school care is the most common type offered at schools, the study found. While 71 percent of the children in all settings surveyed attend programs that meet before and after school, just over half of school-based programs offer before- as well as after-school care. School programs are also less likely to operate in the summer, during holidays and vacations, or after 6 P.M.

Among programs as a whole, children in the age group spanning pre-kindergarten to grade 3 make up 90 percent of before-school and 83 percent of after-school enrollments.

Of the 59 percent of programs offering after-school care that enroll children in grade 4 and higher, only half tailor activities for them.

While fewer than a quarter of the children in school-based before- or after-school programs are in grades 4-7, the school-based programs for those youngsters "are at least more likely than other programs to provide some different activities'' geared to that group, the study notes.

When programs fail to offer activities for these older children, said Patricia Seppanen, a research associate with RMC Research and the principal author of the report, it "limits the interest and willingness of pre-teens to stay in organized care.''

'Stratified by Income'

The report says the average hourly fee for combined before- and after-school sessions is $1.77, but notes that fees are higher when charged separately and that for-profit programs charge far more than publicly sponsored and private, nonprofit ones.

About a third of the school-based before- and after-school programs report getting at least some government aid, but parent fees account for some 80 percent of their budgets.

Across programs, 86 percent of parents pay the full fee for their children's care. Only one program in four offers a sliding fee scale or makes provisions for scholarships or tuition grants, the study found.

While more school-based programs than others make such aid available and slightly fewer parents using school programs pay full fees, the authors write, "we see a pattern of findings indicating that participation ... is still largely limited to families who can afford to pay.''

The study also found that programs serving predominantly low-income children tend to be concentrated in poor areas and to rely much more heavily than other programs on governmental and other aid. It also shows that programs in mainly middle-class areas tend not to "actively recruit'' lower-income children.

"These funding patterns are leading to the development of a school-age child-care system that is stratified by family income,'' the study concludes.

Such findings, said John M. Love, a co-principal investigator and a senior researcher at Mathematica, also raise the issue of "whether schools are taking advantage of the opportunity after-school programs provide to offer additional services to children who might need additional help.''

Enrichment Activities

The main program purpose cited by most directors surveyed is to provide supervision in a safe environment.

Daily activities available in more than 80 percent of programs, the study found, include socializing, free time, board or card games, reading, homework time, active play, and play with blocks. Programs run by schools, as opposed to those only based in schools, are more apt than others to offer dramatic play, tutoring, videos or movies, or computer games at least weekly, but are less apt to offer movement and dance activities.

The mission statements of programs serving low-income children "acknowledge the need to provide enrichment'' activities, but their offerings "weren't all that different from other before- and after-school programs,'' said Val Plisko, the director of the elementary and secondary division of the Education Department's planning and evaluation service.

While warning against making programs an extension of regular school, the researchers say they could do more to enrich the learning of all children through the arts, mastery of skills and hobbies, sports, and community involvement.

Mr. Love of Mathematica also stressed the importance of having school-based programs "tied in philosophically'' with school goals. The study found wide variability in the extent to which school and after-school staffs coordinate activities or jointly establish expectations.

Space Situation Varies

Only a third of programs are operating at 75 percent of their "licensed capacity,'' the study says, and enrollments average only 59 percent of capacity in those licensed or approved by state education departments.

But those data, cautioned Michelle Seligson, a co-principal investigator and the director of the School-Age Child Care Project at Wellesley, do not take into account such issues as access to trained staff members or "appropriate'' expansion space.

The study shows, for example, that virtually no school-based programs have access to the entire building; that most share space used by other children and staff members; and that a quarter of programs sponsored by public schools do not have weekly access to a playground or park.

Ms. Seppanen also noted that "certain communities have underutilization but others have huge waiting lists.''

Meeting capacity in some cases might mean exceeding optimal group sizes, Ms. Seligson added. Child-staff ratios across programs averaged eight or nine to one, which the report calls "excellent.'' Ratios for school-based program were higher--14 to one for those sponsored by schools and 11 to one for those by other agencies.

Low Pay, High Turnover

Like other child-care jobs, before- and after-school programs typically pay low wages and have high staff turnover, the study found. School-sponsored programs spend more of their budgets on salaries and pay higher wages than others do, but are less likely to offer fringe benefits.

Across all programs, the average hourly pay of staff members other than directors--$6.77--is lower than what preschool care-givers earn, the report says. And turnover is higher in before- and after-school programs than in other child-care programs--a fact that may be tied to the jobs' part-time nature.

While the yearly turnover rate averaged 35 percent across programs, 58 percent reported an average rate of 60 percent.

The report also says that programs could do more to link families to other services. While 42 percent of all programs and nearly 60 percent of those in schools reported collaborating with other agencies, only 7 percent of all directors and 17 percent of those in schools view their programs as an "ongoing partnership arrangement.''

Other recommendations include:

  • Seeking to insure that programs receive accreditation and doing more research on program quality;
  • Insuring "adequate space within facilities'' with the help of principals;
  • Tapping federal Chapter 1 funds--now used by only 3 percent of all such programs--to serve more low-income families; and
  • Making sure that staff members get appropriate training.

Based on observations from the 12 case studies, the study also recommends giving children more freedom to rearrange space for activities and providing "interest'' areas that are "inviting and homelike.'' The programs visited were rated highest on safety, health, and nutrition.

Besides highlighting the increased numbers of programs, Ms. Seligson said, the study underlines the dedication of staff members and the satisfaction of parents and children. "Children really do find friends there and like to be there,'' she said. "They articulate that they feel safer, and it's better than being home alone.''

Single copies of the report, "National Study of Before and After School Programs,'' or a summary, are available for free from the U.S. Education Department, Office of Policy and Planning, Room 3127, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202; (202) 401-0590.

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