Three out of four elementary school-aged children in Maryland have mothers in the work force, state officials say. A good percentage of these children need before and after-school care. And once again, the state's public school systems have been asked to fill the breach.
You name the social problem -- AIDS, drug abuse, teen-aged pregnancy, the latchkey children phenomenon -- and public schools across the country are asked to come up with a response," said Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
"The miracle is that school systems usually manage to come up with a credible response," Dr. Sava continued. "Even when they are asked to respond without additional resources, they usually manage to come up with something."
School-aged day care for working mothers is a problem that cuts across class, race, and region. It confronts mothers who belong to the middle class, the working class, and on welfare. It is a problem for both two-parent families and single-parent families.
Professional women complain that they find themselves wrestling with issues such as the cost, the availability and the quality of child care when they should be concentrating on their careers. Women on welfare cite their inability to obtain reliable care for their children as one of the major barriers keeping them out of the work force.
"This isn't a new problem -- the first day care was opened here in 1888," said Sandy Skolnick, director of the Maryland Committee on Children. Mothers from black and immigrant families, she noted, have always had to work and have always had to find
someone to look after their children.
"But," said Ms. Skolnick, "we are recognizing that what was a relative trickle 100 years ago, has become a torrent today."
This torrent of need apparently has overwhelmed the traditional day care providers -- especially for infants, children with special health or learning needs, and school-aged children.
In Maryland, an increasing number of public schools have responded to the problem by opening up their doors to students before and after school.
"When I first came here (14 years ago), I noticed that a large number of youngsters were hanging around after school because they had nowhere to go," said Evelyn T. Beasley, principal of Roland Park Elementary School in the city.
"I didn't like the idea that so many parents were unsure what happens to their children while they were at work, but I understood it. As a single parent, I went through the same thing."
Ms. Beasley said her school's program "started as a baby-sitting idea", coordinated by and for parents. But parents have also discovered it gives their children a chance to do their homework, use the library, and interact with other students.
"It can't replace a parent's job, but it supports them," she said.
"Why do schools have to do this?" asked NAESP's June Million rhetorically. "Because they just have to. Parents are knocking on the doors of schools whether schools like it or not," she said.
"And there is a certain logic to it. You don't want to bounce children around from one place to another. You want as much stability in their lives as we can manage."
State officials agree.
But there is a catch -- a painfully familiar catch: the school systems that serve the most affluent communities are most able to meet the demand for child care. But those systems serving poorer communities, despite the best intentions, are falling short.
"Part of the problem with the whole range of issues surrounding the delivery of day care services in Maryland is that we are trying very, very hard not to replicate the inequities of the state education funding system," said Ms. Skolnick.
"But frankly, we aren't entirely successful. Middle class parents have a pretty diverse selection of day care alternatives for their children. Poor families don't."
The discrepancy can be stark.
Baltimore City had 101,360 children under 12 years with working mothers in 1989 but only 80 licensed day care programs for school-aged children (which may or may not be located in the school), according to the Maryland Committee for Children.
Montgomery County, one of the most affluent counties in the country, had 85,502 children under 12 whose mothers worked, and 221 licensed day care programs to serve them.
The pattern repeats itself when comparing programs situated in schools.
For example, Howard County schools have offered on-site after school care for at least 20 years, particularly in the middle class community of Columbia.
Programs exist in each of the 29 schools in the county, run by either the Columbia Association or the county department of recreation and parks.
And just to underscore the point, the county school board ruled two years ago that before and after school programs should be given priority over other programs whenever there is a conflict over space.
"We tend to accept extended care as a fact of life -- in part because we've had it for so long and in part because there is such a strong unanimity about its importance," said Chuck Parvis, of Howard County school's community service office.
"We were one of the first in the state and probably one of the very first in the country," to offer after school care for students, Mr. Parvis continued.
Baltimore County, which is slightly less affluent than Howard County, also has been slightly less successful making such programs available throughout the system.
Schools there began making space available for after school care about eight years ago, officials say. Non-profit day care providers provide programs at or near the school at slightly less than half of the system's 92 elementary schools.
And this summer, Baltimore County launched a system-wide survey to determine the level of demand in the other schools.
Said Eloise Stockdale, the county child care coordinator: "It started out where principals at individual schools would see a need and work with their parents to find a suitable provider, and then it kept happening and happening."
Meanwhile, Baltimore City, sitting near the bottom of the affluence scale, has been able to provide extended care programs in only a fraction -- 49 out of 122 -- of its elementary schools.
"The latch key kid phenomenon is a serious problem, a problem that the school board and individual schools are looking at every day," said Doug Nielson, spokesman for the Baltimore City school system.
"But it means making adjustments -- staffing, finding space, maintaining standards. I think that what you'll find in the city is that communities have been forced to patch programs together, using volunteers and a variety of community and public agencies."
Mr. Nielson said schools in the city's more affluent neighborhoods are best able to provide programs because parents can pay for them -- just as parents pay for the programs in the suburbs. In addition, schools in the city's poorest communities often can use federal funds to meet parents' day care needs.
"But," said Mr. Nielson, "we've got this tremendous gap in the middle."
State officials say at least 20 of the 24 school systems around the state offer some degree of extended day care for elementary school students and the state makes an on-going effort to expand such programs using federal incentive grants.
At the same time, however, some national surveys suggest that only 20 to 35 percent of elementary schools offer programs, and state officials fear that statistic may be repeated here.
"We know that there probably are a large number of children who go home alone after school or who are watched by other children," said Joseph Slowell, of the state board of education. "That's something we really don't want to see."
Michelle Seligson, director of the School-Age Child Care project there, said research into the issue indicates space and staffing problems are a school's greatest barriers to offering extended day care programs.
She said there are deeper issues, as well.
"I think there's some confusion as to what an after care program is supposed to accomplish," she said. "There is a danger, for instance, if schools are unable to shift from an academic mind set to a more informal mind set. There is a danger that the programs might be too structured, that children might lose the capacity to play."
Another problem, she said, was that communities may come to see schools as the only answer to their day care problems.
"The entire community needs to become involved," she said, including churches, YMCAs and YWCAs, and recreation departments.
"The ideal environment would be in small, group home-like settings, designated especially for school-aged care," she said. "We want the environment to be as home-like as possible."
Meanwhile, the School-Age Child Care Project and NAESP will launch a series of training workshops beginning this fall. The pTC U.S. Department of Education has funded a national study of the problem.
And here in Maryland, the Governor's Conference on School-Age Child Care will host a seminar on the issue in October.
"Even in this era of declining resources, there obviously is a great deal of interest in this issue," noted Ms. Seligson.