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Standards for After-School Care Piloted

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Working parents across the country rely on after-school programs to do what they often aren't around to do for their children: fix a snack, play games, or prod them to complete their homework.

But parents have little evidence that these programs--run by schools or such organizations as community centers, churches, and recreation facilities--are making the best use of those after-school hours.

A new accreditation system, however, will soon give parents some guidance on what elements make a good after-school program.

The National School-Age Care Alliance, a membership organization for after-school child-care providers based at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., is piloting more than 100 standards for programs serving 5- to 14-year-olds. Seventy-five sites in 13 states are participating in the project.

The standards are divided into six categories: human relationships; indoor environment; outdoor environment; activities; health, safety, and nutrition; and administration.

The group hopes to establish an accreditation program similar to that used by the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children in recognizing preschool programs.

"There is a massive effort on the part of the field to self-improve," said Michelle Seligson, the director of the School-Age Child Care Project, or SACCProject, a training and advocacy organization also based at Wellesley College. The organization is collaborating with the national membership group to develop the accreditation program.

The standards are based on a SACCProject program called "Assessing School-Age Child Care Quality," or ASQ. Four groups are paying for the project: the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, and the American Business Collaboration for Quality Dependent Care, a coalition of 21 major companies that support child- and elder-care programs.

The pilot sites include a variety of after-school programs, including for-profit day-care centers and nonprofit programs in schools, community centers, churches, military bases, and libraries. The programs also serve a diverse population of children in both poor urban neighborhoods and wealthier suburban areas.

To take part in the ASQ program, directors and staff members must evaluate themselves, recognize their strengths, and identify areas that need work.

"One of the nice things about the process is that you find out you've been doing some things right," said Nancy Young, the coordinator of school-age child care for the Cherry Hill, N.J., schools.

Susan O'Conner, a research associate with the SACCProject, said that though the NAEYC's accreditation system covers programs that serve children up to age 8, school-age care has unique features that existing standards don't address.

When the pilot ends next fall, the standards will be revised and published. Programs can begin applying for accreditation in fall 1998, with the fee for a moderately sized program of 30 to 40 students expected to be about $300.

Out-of-School Hours

Research shows that the out-of-school hours can be spent either productively or in activities that put children at risk for failure.

"A Matter of Time," a 1992 report from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, called on schools, churches, and community agencies to provide more opportunities for children during their free time.

Child advocates predict that the demand for after-school programs will increase because of the new federal welfare law, which requires mothers to work if they want to continue receiving public assistance.

While structured after-school programs shouldn't give students an additional three hours of academic instruction, they should be closely tied to what students are learning in school, according to another Carnegie Corporation of New York report, "Years of Promise," which was released last month. ("Carnegie Offers Reform Strategy for Ages 3 to 10," Sept. 18, 1996.)

For instance, the 40 children who attend the Taylor House in inner city Chicago, an after-school program that is one of the pilot sites for the standards, spend their time doing science experiments and talking about current events in the local newspaper. They also worked recently on an art project with a safari theme.

"I think this program is very important to the children," said Jeff Ga-ston, the program director. "If they are unable to find something to keep them occupied, they are prime targets for the gangs."

Mr. Ga-ston said his program has benefited most from the standards that focus on improving the relationships between the children and the staff members. But he says he still needs some help settling the children down and getting them focused on the various activities.

Turnover a Problem

Leaders of after-school programs come from a variety of backgrounds, but they usually have experience working with children--as teachers, recreation specialists, or in the arts. But as with child-care programs serving any age, high turnover and low wages contribute to the instability of many programs.

"It's hard to hire qualified staff for part-time, entry-level jobs," Ms. O'Conner said.

Some colleges, however, are responding to the need for training and offering coursework in school-age child care. Seattle Central Community College in Washington, for example, allows students who are earning an associate degree in child and family studies to specialize in school-age care.

The standards outline a detailed list of courses, degrees, and experience that providers should have in order to work in after-school care. But Ms. O'Conner said she realizes that for most programs, those expectations are a goal, not the reality.

"We'll be willing to accept some waivers as long as they can give us a plan on how they're going to get there," Ms. O'Conner said.

Sharing Space

After-school programs rarely have a place they can call their own because most use "shared space," such as a school gym or lunchroom. Program directors, therefore, must be creative to meet some of the standards that focus on the indoor environment, such as displaying student work and having adequate storage space.

"It's hard to make it warm and cuddly," said Selma Goore, an ASQ adviser to after-school programs in New Jersey. "But I've seen kids put a tablecloth over a cafeteria table and get under it."

Another challenge for providers is figuring out ways to keep middle school students involved in the program.

"Try to get a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old interested in the same thing," said Kelly Houle, the director of the after-school program at Edgewater Elementary School near Denver.

Accreditation or Licensing?

The for-profit child-care industry has long held the position that after-school programs in schools and other facilities should be licensed by states, just like day-care centers.

When a program is licensed, state regulators conduct at least one health and safety inspection, but not all states require licensing for schools.

"We are 100 percent opposed to accreditation being used in lieu of licensure," said Lynn White, the executive director of the National Child Care Association in Conyers, Ga.

But Linda Sisson, the director of program improvement and accreditation for the National School-Age Care Alliance, said that accreditation requires far more than licensing. However, if programs are not required to have a license, she said, they must still prove that they meet health and safety codes in some other way.

Accreditation is usually given by an outside group, such as a membership or training organization, while a license indicates that a program meets certain state requirements and will be monitored by a government agency.

The ASQ project doesn't include estimates on how much it might cost an after-school program to meet all the standards. Ms. O'Conner said she's trying to put together some figures on a few of the big-ticket items, such as playground equipment and improved staff salaries and benefits, but she doesn't want to discourage programs that have little financial support.

"It doesn't mean they're not running a good program," she said.

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