Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
Documenting Supply and Demand
The community-planning processes suggested above will likely uncover a haphazard collection of local programs that are popular but underfunded, hard to categorize, challenging to expand, and uneven in quality. Moreover, while their overall value may be accepted, their specific impacts on children are uncertain. While these problems are implementation challenges at the program level, their impacts reverberate through the system of options for school-age children at both the local and national levels. Therefore, solutions are best sought by taking a systemwide view, beginning with an objective analysis of the supply of, and the demand for, different types of after-school programs and activities.
The ability of planners and researchers to estimate the supply of after-school programs and the demand for them is woefully weak. Only a few major efforts have been made to count and describe the supply of after-school programs and activities, and studies of demand are even more scarce.4,23 The systematic assessment of needs and options for children's out-of-school time is hampered by the lack of clear, universal terminology to use in categorizing after-school programs and activities. The omnibus term "after-school program" may mean anything from an extended-day program at school to a dance group to a YMCA basketball league. Such imprecision confuses efforts to document supply and demand, to plan new initiatives, to target program improvement efforts, and to create appropriate expectations for program impact.
A new taxonomy of after-school programs could focus on both program goals and structural characteristics. For instance, a program could be classified based on (1) whether it focuses most on providing child care, educational support, recreation, or youth development; (2) whether it is facility-based and open daily; (3) whether the staff monitor children's attendance; and (4) whether the program offers a schedule of different activities or a single, time-limited activity like a class. Tradeoffs among these characteristics define what a program can easily achieve. Because no program will meet all needs, public and private investments in specific approaches should be guided by awareness of their strengths and limitations.Estimating Supply
The universe of after-school programs has grown sharply in the past decade, although its dimensions are unknown (in part because it is unclear what should be counted). Two major reports describing programs for school-age children were published in the early 1990s: the 1991 National Study of Before- and After-School Programs (referred to here as the 1991 National Study, and discussed in the articles by Vandell and Shumow, and by Dryfoos),23 and the 1992 Carnegie Corporation report, A Matter of Time (summarized and updated in the article by Quinn).4 The 1991 National Study gathered quantitative data on the characteristics of after-school programs that offer regular child care, while A Matter of Time assembled information describing the diverse array of regular, drop-in, and episodic activities and programs that occupy the time of youngsters.
The 1991 National Study estimated that about 49,500 after-school programs were open at least two hours per day, five days per week; these programs were attended by approximately 1.7 million children from kindergarten to grade eight.23 Since then, many public and private initiatives have added to the number of programs. The federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program alone will launch 1,601 new programs in 1998 and 1999, serving an estimated 450,000 children. The article by Dryfoos describes additional investments in school-based programming that have been made recently by states, localities, and private foundations.
Even so, there are 39 million American children between the ages of 6 and 14, and the increasing capacity has only begun to make a dent in the need for after-school solutions, especially among low-income children. The article by Halpern reports that even after several years of supply-building efforts in Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, there are daily full-year openings for only 35% of the children in Seattle, 14% of the children in Boston, and only 9% of the children in Chicago. Estimates by the GAO confirm Halpern's concern, as the agency found that the known supply of school-age care could cover only about one-third of the population of children with employed parents, especially in rural areas.38 Key factors behind the uneven coverage are variations in parent demand, scarce and unstable funding, and the limited availability of staff and space.Understanding Demand
Understanding the demand for after-school programs is also a challenging endeavor. The evidence cited that compares the number of program spaces with the population of eligible children suggests that too few programs exist. Indeed, a 1998 survey of parents conducted by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that 74% wanted and were willing to pay for school-based after-school programs, although only a third of those parents reported that their child attended a program.39 Statistics such as these suggest that funds should go to create new or expanded programs.
Cost and Transportation
Some evidence suggests, however, that while interest in after-school programs may be great, the actual demand for existing programs is soft. The 1991 National Study found that 41% of the spaces that existed in licensed programs were unfilled.23 Utilization rates appear to be strongly influenced by program characteristics like cost and ease of access. The article by Halpern reports that long waiting lists at free programs exist alongside empty spaces in programs that charge fees. One study of low-income families with children ages five to seven asked parents about barriers that kept them from using their preferred after-school options.40 Nearly half (43%) of the parents cited cost, and 16% cited transportation problems. The annual cost of school-age child care programs that are open for three hours a day all year round hovers around $2,000 to $2,500 per child per year.1,41
The lessons and activities that many parents consider for their older school-age children usually charge fees, as well. A Georgia study found that the state's daily center-based programs cost a weekly average of $48 per child, while lessons and activities cost $22 per week even though they met for only a few hours.41 Some working parents cannot afford both a space in a daily program and the cost of add-on activities, so they combine the activities with self-care—as long as the child can safely walk or use public transportation to get where he or she needs to go. One single parent whose child spent her afternoons at home said in an interview, "I'd like her to go somewhere and do something. She just needs a ride."42
Child's Age and Preferences
As these examples illustrate, the child's age also influences the demand for after-school programs and activities. Enrollment in daily school-age child care programs drops sharply at about age 1122,41 when involvement in activities like lessons and sports picks up, as does the prevalence of self-care.21 Researchers who interviewed a sample of 53 children and families over several years found that a typical after-school pattern for youngsters of age 11 or older sounds like this: "Well, on Monday she has soccer practice, on Tuesday she is home by herself, on Wednesday and Thursday she goes to a friend's house, and on Friday I come home early from work to be with her."43
Where they exist, drop-in programs such as community centers and Boys and Girls Clubs can play a valuable role in the lives of such independent middle-schoolers, although for many children attendance is irregular. In one national study of 15 successful youth development programs, the participants, who were about 13 years old, spent an average of five hours per week at the program.44 As one boy explained to an interviewer, "Sometimes I feel like going to an after-school program. . . . I don't like having to go. I want to be able to go."45 Designing surveys that will accurately capture this youngster's demand for after-school options will not be easy, but it is an important task.
Accurate, current supply-and-demand studies can provide crucial information to program developers, advocates, and community leaders. Supply studies should begin by proposing a terminology to categorize after-school programs and activities. They should then identify gaps and redundancies in the array of programs for different age groups, with different goals, on differing schedules, in different neighborhoods. Demand studies should survey families and children to determine the use they make of programs and activities, and gather information on parent and child preferences, needs, and schedules, perceptions of available options, and satisfaction with the child's experiences.
- Conduct research to document the supply of, and the demand for, after-school programs by type, hours, location, and cost of care for children of different ages, to guide the deliberations of community planners, program developers, and policymakers as they allocate new funds and design new programs.