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Children's Voice Article, July 2001

School's Out, So Who Watches the Kids?

by Kristen Kreisher

Many of us fondly remember long, steamy summer days spent exploring the neighborhood, playing with friends, or spending time at the local swimming pool. Tim Esons, Director of School-Age Programs at South Shore Day Care Services, Weymouth, Massachusetts, shares similar memories. "During the summers, we spent our free time in the neighborhood with other kids and parents; but now, because parents are working or neighborhoods aren't safe, we are their neighborhood," he says, referring to the eight-week summer program offered by South Shore.

The face of summer has changed across the country as the number of single-parent and dual-income families has increased. In 1996, 77% of married mothers with school-age children worked outside the home, compared with 40% in 1960.1 Mothers today are also more likely to work full time.

An April 2000 report from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice revealed that in 69% of all married-couple families with children ages 6-17, both parents work outside the home. The custodial parent works in 71% of single-mother families and 85% of single-father families. "It's hard to create a neighborhood now when no one is home in the afternoon," Esons says.

Unsupervised Hours

During the school year, the difference between a child's six-hour school day and a parent's eight-hour-plus work day can add up to 20-25 hours a week, leaving many parents searching for safe, affordable, and enriching programs to fill afterschool hours.

The situation is difficult enough during the school year. Statistics on out-of-school time from the Department of Education estimate 8-15 million children come home to empty houses after school, and 44% of third-graders spend at least some portion of their out-of-school time unsupervised.

Not surprisingly, findings from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the FBI, and youth advocacy groups show these unsupervised hours can be a dangerous period for children. From 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm, youth are more likely to commit crimes, be victims of crimes, or experiment with alcohol or drugs.

In addition, idle afternoon hours are lost opportunities for mentoring, enrichment activities, or academic support. In the summer, these troublesome hours increase exponentially as schools let out and children are left with entire days unscheduled and possibly unsupervised.

"We definitely see a difference in the kids who have been in a good program during the summer- they retain more information, perform better in school, and stay out of trouble," reports Marti Beard, Service Director at Cedars Youth Services in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Cedars expands its afterschool care to cover the longer hours and accommodate more kids during the summer.

According to Bruce Hershfield, CWLA Director of Child Day Care Services, parents of school-age children often "patch care together and rely on drop-in programs" during the school year or depend on programs affiliated with the school. When the need for care grows from a few hours to a full day during the summer, however, parents struggle to find quality care.

[For some alternative programs, see "The End of the School Year as We Know It," page 26.]

Paying for Care

The longer hours needed during the summer also mean higher child care costs-an expense that already taxes many family budgets. A recent report from the Urban Institute shows child care ranks only after housing and food as the major monthly expense for most families-consuming an average 9% of monthly earnings for families with children under 13, and up to 16% of earnings for low-income families, single parents, and families with younger children. [See "Bulletin Board," Children's Voice, May 2001.]

A 1993 Department of Education study of before- and afterschool programs showed that although interest in afterschool services was high, 41% of the spaces in licensed programs were unfilled.2 Parents frequently cite cost and transportation problems as the reasons why their children are not enrolled in out-of-school care or activities. Waiting lists for free programs tend to be lengthy, while spaces abound in programs that charge fees.

Many agencies, such as South Shore, base fees on sliding scales. Payment scales are based on family size, income, and services needed, but parents are responsible for at least some part of the payment. At Cedars Youth Services, parents pay $95 a week for summer care for children in first through fourth grades. Beard says child care block grants from the state cover most or at least some of those costs for parents.

As much as an estimated $20 billion in public funds is available to help families pay for child care, but those working in the field report it isn't nearly enough. A large part of this amount includes funds from the Social Services Block Grant-funds that can be, but aren't necessarily, applied to child care and Head Start. Thus, the amount of public money available to help families pay for child care is actually much lower. Also, researchers have found it difficult to quantify how much is actually available to families with school-age children.

Esons observes that families coming off welfare roles in Massachusetts have a lot of assistance available to them to pay for child care. For low-income families who are making it on their own, however, there aren't enough resources. Beard reports that in Nebraska, waiting lists for child care block grants are "large."

"Every state could use thousands more subsidies," Esons says. CWLA's Hershfield agrees: "In general, funding subsidies for parents don't meet the need."

Planning (Way) Ahead

Many agencies that provide care during before- and afterschool hours don't continue into the summer. And even if parents can find a summer program, it may be offered for only eight weeks- leaving transitional periods at the beginning and end of the summer when parents are still scrambling for care. "It's difficult for parents and for programs to figure out those transitions," Hershfield says.

Regardless of what program they choose, Hershfield urges parents to begin planning early to make sure they can cover the entire summer. A former director of an agency that offered a summer program, Hershfield recalls, "I would have parents calling on June 19 asking about care for the summer vacation that began the next day. The best advice I can give is that parents and programs need to be planning months and months in advance."

Filling the Gap

The need for affordable, accessible care is clear, but how can child care agencies and programs best fill the long summer days? Beyond keeping children supervised and safe during the hours their parents are at work, what should these programs strive to provide?

Although there is no single formula, researchers and practitioners have found effective programs combine academics, enrichment and cultural activities, and recreation. Also important is that programs meet the needs of children and families in the communities they serve. The three programs profiled here offer children something different and something valuable during their long summer days.

Recreating a Neighborhood

The time children spend out of school can promote self-definition and help children recognize their talents and develop their social skills. South Shore Day Care Services tries to allow children to make these strides during their eight-week summer camp.

"Kids need a lot more than academics to be successful people," Esons says. The South Shore program allows them to participate in recreational and social activities that teach young people about responsibility, making choices, and the repercussions of their actions. "Our philosophy is to give kids as real-life an experience as possible. This is their neighborhood time."

What was once learned during stickball games in the street, bike rides around the neighborhood, and camping trips must now take place in another setting. "We as a society need to provide what used to happen in families, in extended families, and in neighborhoods," Esons asserts.

South Shore's program also allows kids to get outside of their urban and suburban neighborhoods and experience nature. The day camp brings them into a "totally different environment," Esons says. "Some kids never get into the woods. They may have swum in a pool, but never in a pond. Maybe they've never been out on the water. We provide boats to them."

The agency remembers this is the children's free time but stresses that, although camp activities are not strictly academic, they keep the children actively engaged and learning. The program regularly offers classes in gymnastics, karate, swimming, art, and computers. "We provide what schools don't have time to teach," Esons explains, "and kids can spend more time with us than they do at school."

A community-based, nonprofit agency, South Shore has 10 school-age centers that serve 600 children in the south Boston area each year, offering programs for students before and after school, during school vacations, and during the summer. Esons estimates the agency provides 1,400 hours of care a year, whereas most public schools are only open approximately 1,100 hours.

Esons believes the demand for child care that has resulted from the increase in two-wage-earner families and single parents will really drive the field forward. He also hopes it will help address the problem that child care is one of the lowest paid industries in the country.

Combating Summer Slide

According to a long-running study by Johns Hopkins University sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle, low-income students learn at the same rate as middle-class students during the school year but fall much further behind during the summer.

On average, low-income children enter first grade a year and a half behind their more affluent classmates. By the time they reach fifth grade, they have fallen two and a half years behind. Alexander and Entwisle trace much of this gap to summer vacations, when upper-income children are attending camps, receiving special instruction, and being encouraged to read, while lower-income children are "treading water."

Friends of Tyler School (FOTS), a grant-funded, mostly volunteer organi-zation that provides evening tutoring to students in a low-income area of Washington, DC, added a summer tutoring program in its second year of operation because tutors and coordinators noticed children forgot so much over the summer.

Coordinator Jan Eichhorn says "Camp Cool" offers afternoon classes in reading and math four days a week during the summer months. Taught by certified teachers on summer vacation, the courses are designed to help students catch up, retain more information, and become better prepared for the next school year. This year, the program is also offering a computer class taught by an AmeriCorp VISTA volunteer.

The FOTS program began when several concerned residents of DC's Capitol Hill neighborhood learned an elementary school in their area had the lowest test scores in the city. Realizing the neighborhood was home to numerous well-educated professionals, FOTS began to recruit mentors and tutors to work with the children. Now located in a townhouse within walking distance of the public housing projects in which most of its participants live, FOTS has expanded to offer a conflict resolution program, a social worker-led discussion group for adolescent boys, and a high school girls' club.

In 1999, the program saw two young men, who were among the first group of children to enter the program in 1990, graduate from high school. They were the first men in their families to earn diplomas.

Nurturing LA's Neediest Children

"We have areas here that look like another country," says Anna Totta, Central Area Director at Para Los Ninos, a Los Angeles agency that serves some of the most destitute, crowded, and crime-ridden areas of the city. With centers in Pico Union, East L.A., and South Central, Para Los Ninos serves mostly Latino and African American children who are extremely poor.

"Many of the kids we serve are living in motel rooms because their parents can't pay rent," Totta says. "They are living day to day." The state-funded program gives first priority to children who are homeless and bases all payments on a sliding scale. Many of the children they serve are undocumented or have parents who are, but the agency is not required to ask about citizenship. The only requirement for services is that the parents are working.

Para Los Ninos has four school-age child care centers offering services from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm. "Afterschool services become full day when school is out," Totta says, which is more often in the Los Angeles school districts that run on multitrack systems. To squeeze more students into overcrowded school buildings, students are divided into tracks that attend school on different schedules. "We have one school that still has the traditional summer break," Totta reports, but the agency's program is available for all-day services whenever the need is there.

Totta stresses, "Our vision is to raise children out of poverty to bright futures through education and exposure- exposure to things these kids wouldn't normally be exposed to." The agency's program during school breaks offers children the opportunity to go on fishing trips, experience overnight camping, and participate in Friends of the River, a project that focuses on environmental issues and community service.

A recent horseback riding trip was funded through a grant to promote literacy. The children were asked to write about their experiences before and after riding. "Many had never even seen a horse before," Totta marvels.

Two programs in Los Angeles, City Hearts and Inner City Arts, bring dance and visual arts to the children, while the Natural History Museum has provided the agency 63 spots in the museum's science and industry program this year.

In operation for two decades, the agency has provided services to some children their entire lives. "We have programs that care for children from infancy to adulthood," Totta says. "They're in an unsafe environment and need nurturing, attention, and positive adult supervision. Many of them could go home in the afternoon- some of them are old enough- but it's not an exciting environment. It's not nurturing when no one is home."

Totta reports Para Los Ninos has had some remarkable success stories and is encouraged by the amount of parental participation in the program. Recounting a recent health seminar that was attended by almost twice as many parents as expected, Totta stresses it is a stereotype that "because people are poor, they don't care about their children." Many parents are doing the best they can to get by and give their children better lives.

Totta sees the role of child care as filling the gaps between school time and the schedules of working families. "Our school system was built on an agrarian system and a system with mothers at home. That's no longer the case, even in middle-class families. Child care does what the schools don't- it fills the gap with quality care and attention."

Kristen Kreisher is associate editor of Children's Voice.


1. Cappella, E., & Larner, M.B. (1999). America's School Children: Past, Present, and Future. The Future of Children, 9 (2) 21-29.
2. Seppanen, P., deVries, D., and Seligson, M. (1993). National Study of Before- and After-School Programs. Washington, DC: Office of Policy and Planning, U.S. Department of Education.

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