Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
Interest in after-school programs for low- and moderate-income children has been building throughout the 1990s. There are numerous federal proposals for new or expanded after-school program funding, new foundation grants programs, new state- and city-level initiatives, and efforts by scores of community groups around the country to create more after-school programs in their communities. Four principal factors are driving this growing interest: (1) a belief that public spaces such as streets and playgrounds are no longer safe for children's out-of-school time, (2) a sense that it is stressful and unproductive for children to be left on their own after school, (3) a concern that many children need more time and individual attention than schools can provide to master basic academic skills, and (4) a conviction that low-income children deserve the same opportunity as their more advantaged peers to explore expressive arts, sports, and other developmentally enriching activities.
In the face of growing interest in after-school programs stands a field that is a mix of contrasting elements. After-school programs are identifiable, yet extraordinarily heterogeneous; vibrant, yet fragile. They offer children a protected space for play and exploration, yet are increasingly burdened with the task of compensating for the limitations of other social institutions. Staff-child relationships in after-school programs are usually warm and supportive, but most staff members have little formal preparation for work with children, and turnover in staff positions is high. In spite of numerous funding streams, after-school programs for low-income children are inadequately and insecurely funded. While the field is beginning to attract significant new funding, much of that funding is going to a narrow band of institutions.
There are, in other words, forces pulling after-school programs in different directions, and a certain amount of tension exists between the new policy interest in after-school programs and the marginal conditions under which many programs operate. Given this tension, what are appropriate, realistic goals and expectations of after-school programs? Where do they fit in relation to school and family? How should after-school programs be funded and the field, as a whole, organized? What supports are needed by programs and individual providers to make the work of after-school programs viable? This article describes the current status of the after-school field in terms of demand and supply, program activities, sponsoring and supporting organizations, and funding—and then discusses issues and challenges facing the field as it struggles to move toward more solid ground.