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Kids share opinions on after-school care options


The presidential election season is upon us, and both candidates are going after working parents where we are most vulnerable: in the anxious hours between 3 and 6 p.m.

Our children need care and supervision between the end of the school day and the end of our commute. There isn't much of it to be had, and it is expensive. So George W. Bush and Al Gore want to put a lot of money into after-school care.

It makes obvious sense to expand the school day this way. These programs have been shown to improve grades and social skills and keep children safe.

And it is an obvious need. More than 28 million school-age children have either their only parent or both parents working outside the home.

If only it were as simple as keeping the schools open longer and hiring staff. But it is not.

Studies show that children in pre-school through about third grade can be herded into after-school programs of any description without much protest.

By fourth or fifth grade, however, kids often declare that they are not kids anymore and they don't want to go.

"If they don't like it, they won't go," says Dr. Toks Fashola, a research associate at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in the evaluation of after-school programs.

The key to the success of these programs, she says, is to ask the kids what they want and then listen to what they say.

The cynical among us might expect the kids to demand pizza, soda, video games and very loud music in exchange for their participation. But that is not what she found.

Surveys of the children in after-school programs demonstrated repeatedly that they really liked the homework help. In many cases, it ranked No. 1.

"When you are straight with them, when you tell them, 'Look, academics have to be part of this. There is no getting around it. But once the work is done, we can have fun,' they go along with you," Fashola said.

When asked how the program could be improved, the children responded, "Kick out the bad kids."

"They liked the field trips, but they also liked being taught manners and discipline. They told us, 'Kick the bad kids out and teach us how to behave.' "

The kids liked sports and cooking and arts and crafts. But they also wanted to learn something new and work together to produce something.

"They wanted to learn how to play music, but they also wanted to form a band. They wanted to learn how to use computers, but they also wanted to produce a newspaper."

That Bush and Gore agree on the importance of after-school care would appear to be a blessing for working parents: We win no matter who wins.

But again, it is not so simple.

While Gore would funnel after-school money through the public schools, Bush would throw open the coffers to private schools and church groups and neighborhood associations and give working parents a "choice."

Bush's proposal is thick with code words for school vouchers. His proposal would make after-school care a weapon in that ideological war.

If the public is going to support the heavy spending these programs require, it will insist on results. And the only way to ensure better test scores is to organize these programs through and around the school-day curriculum and keep them accountable to the school system.

As Fashola told the kids: Academics has to be part of the deal. The kids have spoken, too. They like the homework help.

And by locating these programs in public schools, we are saying that we understand that those students are the neediest, that they are the ones who can't afford private after-school care, that they are the ones who otherwise will be loose on the world between 3 and 6 p.m.

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