April 21, 2018
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After-school programs struggling with demand as latchkey kids on rise

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

The number of Maine kids who go home to an empty home after school is rapidly growing, highlighting the need for far more after-school programs, according to a recent national report.

According to the national Afterschool Alliance’s report, the number of kids in self-care after school — who are also known as latchkey kids — increased from 23 percent in 2004 to 33 percent in 2009.

“At the end of the school day, kids who don’t have a competent adult in their lives are often left on their own and are often involved in high-risk behaviors,” said Deb Chase, director of the Maine Afterschool Network. “This is the time of day when they’re starting to experiment with risky behaviors.”

And aside from the risks to students, a lack of enough after-school and summer programs puts enormous strains on families and even businesses whose employees are underproductive at the end of the day or during the summer because they are focused on where their children are and what they’re doing.

The report also said that despite the 9-year-old 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, a competitive grant process which funds after-school and summer programs for at-risk students, only 5,654 Maine students are participating in those programs.

Maine officials say the reports drastically undercounted the number of Maine kids in the program but acknowledge the need for after-school activities far outpaces their availability.

According to the Department of Education’s Lauren Sterling, who directs the 21st Century program in Maine, there are 9,062 students benefiting from the federal money and about 6,300 of them are categorized as low-performing. That’s out of more than 65,000 under-performing or at-risk students.

“I don’t know what happened with that report,” said Sterling. “They must have pulled the data down mid-year when we were still loading the data into the system.”

Despite the mistake and despite a range of after-school programs that are innovative and effective in their approaches, Sterling and others said there is a vastly underserved segment of the student population who lack of supervision or anything to do between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. This puts them at risk of everything from substance abuse to committing crimes to teenage pregnancies.

“We’ve done polling in the state of Maine and we know that over 90 percent of our families want quality after-school programming,” said Chase. “The problem is convincing the public that it’s an important enough issue to fund.”

Aside from the 21st Century money and federal funds that are given to economically disadvantaged families to spend on child care, there is no funding from state government for after-school programs and little hope that there will be any in the foreseeable future, said Chase.

“There’s no chance,” she said. “Not in this economic environment.”

There’s little doubt that the 21st Century program is helping, said Sterling, and not just by keeping kids out of trouble. According to data she compiles as part of reporting requirements for the federal government, the programs are also helping kids make significant gains academically.

In 2004-05, 39.7 percent of students in 21st Century programs improved their math scores. That number jumped to 49.8 percent in 2009-10, trouncing the national average of 36.6 percent.

In reading, 42.7 percent of students in 21st Century programs improved in 2004-05 compared to more than 53 percent in 2009-10.

“The 21st Century program has enormous benefits,” said Sterling. “Most importantly for the children and teenagers who are involved, but also for the parents that it served by knowing their young person is not only safe but in an educational environment.”

In fiscal year 2011, Maine had $5.7 million in 21st Century funding to distribute plus money left over from previous years as programs’ yearly grant amounts declined according to requirements tied to the federal funding.

Bangor Schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said some of the district’s programs are receiving 21st Century funding and that overall, participation in after-school programs is increasing. Those programs are supplemented by programs run by the city’s recreation program and other child-care centers such as the Bangor YMCA.

“We try to figure out what the students have an interest in and then we have a variety of adults who help support that,” she said. “We certainly encourage all children and families to try to have their children involved in after-school programming. The research is so clear that student who engage in their school community perform better academically.”

Whitney Hurley, who runs several programs at the Boothbay Region YMCA, said attendance is increasing in activities ranging from one called “Fit Kids” to cooking and basic after-school care. Many of the program’s students receive financial aid, she said.

“We have taken great steps to make sure kids can be in our after-school programs,” she said.

Cost is one factor that prevents families from putting their children in quality after-school programming and transportation is another, said Chase. But in many areas of Maine — particularly in rural ones — it boils down to a simple lack of choices.

“We do have a lot of family child care in Maine and that’s a really big system,” she said. “However, it just doesn’t meet the needs of all our kids.”

Sterling said she is gearing up to examine the next crop of applicants for 21st Century grants, which she estimated will be awarded in May 2012. With points given for innovation, Sterling said the applications are a bit like Christmas presents.

“I’m so excited to see how this program and the training and professional development that go with it can support some schools that have really never had it,” she said. “That’s were the rubber really meets the road.”

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