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Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999

When School Is Out: Analysis and Recommendations
Mary B. Larner Lorraine Zippiroli Richard E. Behrman


What do America's schoolchildren do when school is out? Are they safe? Do they use their free time wisely? Do they have enough contact with adults and enough structure in their lives? These questions have recently moved from the worry lists of parents onto the national agenda. Terms like "after-school programs" and "out-of-school time" now appear in the speeches of presidential candidates and law enforcement officials, bills put forward in Congress and state legislatures, and articles in the popular press.1

When many of today's adults were between the ages of 6 and 14, their time outside of school was spent at home bent over homework, doing chores, gathered at the dinner table or television set; or it was spent with friends in the neighborhood jumping rope, talking, or exploring a vacant lot or a ravine. Today, however, widespread shifts in family and community life have changed the lives of school-age children. Because more parents are working, fewer familiar adults are home or nearby when children are dismissed from school. Neighborhoods seem less safe; they are crisscrossed by traffic, plagued by street violence, and peopled by strangers. School shootings have heightened public concern about the many forms of trouble that teens and younger children are finding after school-whether it comes in the form of alcohol, drugs, or sexual activity; or takes the shape of vandalism, gang membership, or online relationships with Internet-based hate groups. Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about what the nation's youngsters are doing-and not doing-after school lets out.

Familiar activities like sports, piano lessons, religious classes, and scout troops still dot the afternoons and weekends of many children, but other youngsters are adrift after school. Too many fend for themselves in libraries, congregate in subway stations and neighborhood stores, or spend their afternoons behind the locked doors of city apartments and suburban houses. Growing numbers of children with working parents attend programs in schools or community organizations that provide a range of activities in one place. These programs bear the broad label of "after-school programs" because they offer supervised activities and a safe place to spend time when school is not in session (including holidays and summer vacations).

Decisions about children's activities outside of school have long been a family matter, and many of the activities that occupy children's free time are organized by parents and voluntary organizations. Nevertheless, a consensus is now emerging that the wider society should share with parents the responsibility for providing programs and activities, safe places, and transportation options to make "out-of-school time" productive for children and teens. A poll of 2,000 adults taken in 1997 found that the majority held negative views of American children, but 60% of those polled endorsed the idea that more after-school programs would provide an effective way of addressing the problems of "kids these days."2 Indeed, increased funds are flowing from public and private coffers to create new after-school programs and to expand and strengthen existing ones.

The articles in this journal issue explain the roots of the new consensus that after-school programs are important and examine the programs that exist and that are being created across the United States. The first five articles consider the lives and concerns of school-age children and their parents. The next four articles examine the major types of programs and activities that have evolved to occupy youngsters when school is not in session. Finally, four commentaries give a flavor of the policy climate that surrounds after-school and youth programs. This Analysis and Recommendations article reviews how after-school programs and activities respond to the interests of children, parents, and policymakers; and it examines challenges to program delivery. The article focuses not at the program level but at the community level where, we believe, effective solutions to problems of program availability and design should be sought. Based on that analysis, the article highlights the opportunity that community leaders, program designers, advocates, and parents now have to create attractive, purposeful, and sustainable activity options for school-agers.