School Climate & Safety

Survey Finds More Children Unattended After School

By Katie Ash — October 07, 2009 3 min read
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Roughly 15 million school-age children are left unattended after school—up from 14 million in 2004, says a report released Tuesday by the Washington-based Afterschool Alliance.

Thirty percent of those students left alone are middle schoolers, 4 percent are in elementary school, and the remaining 66 percent are students of high school age, according to the nationally representative survey, which included responses from about 30,000 U.S. households during the 2008-09 school year. Most participants were surveyed through the mail with some follow-up phone surveys, and the margin of error for the study is plus or minus sixth-tenths of a percent.

The survey, sponsored by the JCPenney Afterschool Fund, based in Plano, Texas, also found that 88 percent of those surveyed agreed that after-school programs are “an absolute necessity” for their communities.

“One of the inroads that we have made in the past five years is a recognition that after-school programs really are valuable,” said Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates affordable, high-quality after-school options for children.

Although the number of children in after-school programs has increased from 6.5 million to 8.4 million in the past five years, 38 percent of parents whose children do not participate in such programs said they would enroll their children if one were available, up from 30 percent in 2004.

“I think the biggest take-away is that we’re doing better,” Ms. Grant said. “There are more kids in after-school programs today than there were five years ago. But I also think you can’t separate that from the enormous growth in the number of parents who say they’d like their child to be in an after-school program.”

Greater Demand

African-American and Hispanic children are more likely than children overall to be enrolled in after-school programs, but the need for more programs is also greater in those minority communities, the survey found.

Sixty-one percent of African-American parents and 47 percent of Hispanic parents said they would enroll their children in after-school programs if they were available, compared with 38 percent of parents overall.

The average cost of enrollment in after-school care has risen from about $44 per child per week in 2004 to $67 in 2009. More than half the parents whose children were not enrolled in after-school programs cited cost as a barrier.

The top three criteria that parents consider when choosing an after-school program, in order of importance, are their children’s enjoyment of the program, the location, and the cost, the survey found.

The economy was also cited as a factor in the report, Ms. Grant said. “Seventy-six percent of the funding for after-school programs comes from parents,” she said. “So for a lot of parents, if their budgets are being cut and they’re losing their jobs, it’s hard to afford to keep their kids in after-school programs.”

In addition, Ms. Grant said, many after-school programs themselves are losing funding. “They’re really struggling to keep up with demand,” she said. “We’re seeing one in 10 programs having to close their doors.”

Outlining the Impact

After-school programs have the potential to keep children out of trouble, said Joseph A. Durlak, a professor of clinical psychology at Loyola University Chicago who has conducted research on the topic.

“If you have adults in the program that can monitor these kids’ activities, you would expect the kids to be safer” than if they were left unsupervised, he said.

With the increase in the number of single parents and households in which both parents work, “there is definitely a need for some place where kids can be supervised after school,” Mr. Durlak said. “Just because of the change in demographics, it’s an important issue.”

Lastly, research has suggested that high-quality after-school programs can promote children’s social and emotional development and can sometimes contribute to higher academic achievement, said Mr. Durlak, who co-wrote a 2007 report about the impact of after-school programs on personal and social skills.

That report found that children who took part in after-school programs had higher self-esteem, more positive attitudes toward school, more positive social behaviors, and increased levels of academic achievement than children who did not participate in after-school programs. The 2007 report also found that after-school programs that used evidence-based training approaches were more effective than programs that did not.

State-specific information about after-school programs will be released by the Afterschool Alliance on Oct. 15.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week

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