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Beyond 'day care'

''I was never home when I was home,'' says Anne, a 12-year-old with carefully waved-back hair, explaining why she was signed up for a model day-care program here. ''I used to hang around the shopping center a lot. Now I can go to the center, but I have to have a good reason.''

In fact, Anne hung around a spot notorious for drug activities - at first during her after-school hours, later in lieu of attending school. Then her mother heard about the Reston Children's Center Senior Satellite program, a ''check in'' program that monitors the activities of young adolescents.

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Now Anne takes the school bus to a private home here, checks in with a former day-care worker named Barbara, has a snack, talks about her day, and decides whether she wants to go to her own home - a privilege she earns by phoning Barbara regularly to let her know her whereabouts (''I can go home if I want to, '' she says defiantly, when asked).

How often does she go? ''Almost never,'' says Barbara, who provides activities - like making stained glass - once or twice each week and spends ''a lot of time'' talking one on one with the four children she monitors.

For this age, adult companionship like Barbara's is hard to find. Says a spokesman for the Center for Early Adolescence in Chapel Hill, N.C., ''There's a lot for elementary students and a lot for older teen-agers, but this age group is just falling between the cracks.''

Older teen-agers, she points out, ''are usually tied in with the community and know how to use the bus system and sign up for activities. But these kids just go home and watch TV.''

Catherine Browne, who directs a school-age child care program at Avondale Community School in Birmingham, Ala., confirms this perception: ''By the time they're 16, they've got their driver's license, and off they go.'' But the teen-age volunteers she ''employs'' (at $1 an hour for a six-hour week) to teach the younger children ''come every day whether they're paid to or not. They like working with the younger children, and they like seeing each other.''

Her program turns a ''problem'' age into an asset. Youth Helpers, aged 12 (''if they're very mature'') to 15, are expected to design a project for a group of younger students, obtain the supplies, carry it through, and clean up.

''One boy got all the parts to build a model airplane - a big one,'' says Mrs. Browne, ''and he had those kids sanding down the parts and putting them together. And a couple of others made puppets and put on a show for the kids,'' she reports. ''Then we've had brownies and cupcakes and cooking projects, which the kids just love.''

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Few such formalized programs as these exist for this age, a group that is increasingly being left on its own, asserts Joan Scheff Lipsitz, director of the Center for Early Adolescence. ''We simply do not know how many of these young people lack contact with parents or other adults in their out-of-school hours,'' she told the US House of Representatives' Committee on Children, Youth, and Families late last year.

But she expects that ''the figure for those children who are not supervised has soared, along with the burgeoning rate of single-parent families, single mothers in the labor force, dual-earner families, and adolescents in single-parent families.'' While no national data on this issue exist, Ms. Lipsitz supports her assertion with data from a series of localized, suburban studies which show that up to 30 percent of children over nine years old are on their own after school. ''I believe we are witnessing a trend toward the increasing solitude of middle-class youth,'' she says.

Such isolation, she feels, feeds on itself. ''If a 14- or 15-year-old becomes delinquent in the after-school hours, he or she will be attended to rather swiftly, if not rather well,'' she says. ''But we are not likely to respond to the teen-ager who hangs around the house, neighborhood, or shopping mall, aimlessly seeking ways to kill time.''

Representatives from the Center for Early Adolescence visited 50 programs in 24 states serving this age group.They concluded that, for the most part, ''we are throwing the responsibility back onto young people to fend for themselves,'' says Ms. Lipsitz, ''via self-help manuals, latchkey survival kits, and television spots for young viewers during Saturday morning cartoons.'' The director asked the House committee, ''Is this the best we can do? Is this the extent of the social effort we can muster?''

Some organizations - YMCAs, Girls and Boys Clubs, churches, schools, and others - are mustering an effort to care for these latchkey candidates, offering activities as diverse as aerobic dancing and job skills training. In Alexandria, Va., intermediate schools, for example, students can sign up for an after-school club that helps them get a social security number, fill out a job application, and negotiate with employers. Says one participant, speaking with obvious pride about the lawn-care service he developed through this club, ''This way I don't have to ask my mother for money; I can earn it myself.''

Others agencies, like the Boston Children's Museum, teach young teens how to use the public transportation system, a key that opens up the city's resources. Then there are academic enrichment programs like the Harbor School-Age Center in New York, which offers art, sports, and academics, putting special emphasis on science.

Commenting on the science emphasis, director Bernadette Edwards has explained: ''Before junior high, it's magnets and more magnets, with a bit of weather. Here, they get to do things like animal dissection. You can really get kids involved in it.''

Most of these programs operate on a drop-in basis for an age group that resists monitoring. Says a day-care graduate enrolled in the Reston children's center program, ''Day care is gross. I mean, it's OK when you're little. . . .''

But directors say they know and quietly keep track of their ''regulars,'' who would far rather attend the program than stay home. Betsy Shelsby, director of the Reston program, tells this story: ''One of the girls had reached that stage where they wash their hair every 45 minutes, it seems, and she told her attendant that at home she didn't want to wash her hair because she wouldn't be able to hear if someone broke in.''

For her - and for the uncounted others in her position - such programs as Reston's are a welcome alternative.

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