The key to any good after-school program is constructive contact with adults, experts say. And there's renewed interest in drawing on charities and churches in providing that contact.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in a Nov. 2 speech in Gorham, N.H., promised to expand the role of charities and faith-based organizations in after-school programs, if he were elected president.
"Everyone agrees there is a problem in these empty, unsupervised hours after school. But these hours should not only be filled with sports and play, they should include lessons in responsibility and character," he said.
"The federal government already funds after-school programs. But charities and faith-based organizations are prevented from participating," he added.
But officials who manage these federal programs insist that there is already a push under way to involve the faith community in after-school programs.
"The claim that charities are prevented from participating is inaccurate. Currently YMCAs, churches, synagogues, and mosques are participating in school-based consortiums that are getting after-school money," says Erica Lepping, spokeswoman for Secretary of Education Richard Riley.
Department officials say they explicitly wrote new regulations for the 21st century community learning centers, allowing faith-based communities to be part of consortiums that use federal after-school funding, as long as public schools manage the funds.
They also note that since 1994, 40 faith-based communities have signed a statement of common purpose with the Department of Education to "join together with government, community organizations, businesses, and public and private schools in striving to provide families ... with the information, skills, tools, and opportunities that will encourage their participation in the total education of their children, including character education."
The distinction between promoting character education and religious faith is not always clear. But it must be made in assessing whether a church can use federal money in after-school programs.
"Faith-based organizations can use school facilities, but the school cannot endorse or restrict the practice of religion," says Stephen Yurek, general counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which is based in Reston, Va.
"You need to be neutral," he adds. "We all know there are basic things that go across faith lines, such as being honest, treating others with respect - general community values."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society