Finding quality, affordable afterschool care is a dilemma By Alissa Calabresephotos by Josh Hawkins Sandra Dawson, an artist who runs an afterschool care program in her home, helps her son Max Gugel-Dawson make a sign for selling lemonade, cookies and pretzels.
In the game of finding affordable, high quality afterschool care that fits with a family's schedule, Toya Campbell is two for three.
The Evanston mother of three is settling for a program that is reasonably priced and convenient, but the quality "leaves a lot to be desired," she says. The children aren't supervised well and do not receive homework help, Campbell says.
"I just don't feel that it's well-managed," Campbell says. Nor is her daughter, Marissa, 8, happy either. Campbell is looking for a different program for this school year, but she admits, "The choices are limited."
As the school year approaches, Campbell and other working parents face the annual struggle of finding high quality, affordable and convenient afterschool care for their children.
Nationwide, 14.3 million children in kindergarten through 12th grades are on their own after school. Most of these are high schoolers-an age that many experts argue still needs supervision. But 4 million children are in grades six through eight and 43,000 children as young as 5 years old are home alone after school, according to a study released in May by the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes the need for available, top-quality and affordable afterschool care. The study says there is a higher demand for afterschool care than provided.
"As a nation we've decided it's OK for kids to be home alone," says Judy Samelson, the alliance's executive director. "[But] afterschool programs are keeping kids safe."
The dollars and sense Heather Hodge of Bartlett says finding reasonably priced after-school care for her 5-year-old daughter, Megan, is hard. "Cost couldn't be a factor," she says, adding care in her area is costly. Hodge needs a program that picks up her daughter from the school and also has a low student-to-teacher ratio.
"It's really, really stressful," agrees Angela Allyn, an Evanston mother.
Her two oldest children, Maya, 10, and Alec, 6, attend Baker Demonstration School at National-Louis University in Evanston, which has a high quality, but pricey, program. Because Allyn doesn't send her children regularly, she pays about $21 for one child for 3-6 p.m. care. Baker's full-time extended care rates are about $13.88 per child per day, according to the school's statistics. Allyn's rates are a little above the average full-time 2003 weekly rates for before/afterschool care in the North and Northwest suburbs, about $18.50 a day, according to Action for Children, an organization that works to improve childcare in Illinois.
"I think anything that is a quality program is going to cost more," says Charlotte Tyksinski, associate director at Baker. She also adds the extended care has a certified teaching staff, coming at additional cost.
Although her children enjoy the extended programming, Allyn cannot afford to send them regularly. On the days they don't attend, Allyn hires a babysitter or the children go to Girl Scouts, music or Hebrew lessons. "It's a logistical juggle," she says.
Transportation is another problem. "It makes me nervous," Hodge says. The daycare program buses Megan to and from kindergarten. But Hodge says the bus drops the children off at a back door to the school and "nobody makes sure they get to that door."
"It's hard not to imagine the worst," she says, recalling a friend's experience when her daughter got lost and a stranger had to show her to the kindergarten door. "I don't have much of a choice," Hodge says, adding that she cannot take time off from work to drive Megan to school and back.
When Hodge approached the daycare providers, "they said they didn't have the staff for it," she says. Hodge is now trying to alter her work schedule to take Megan to school.
What to do? "There is no one-size-fits-all approach to afterschool care," says Rhonda Present, an Evanston mother of a 6-year-old girl. Present is also founder of ParentsWork, a parents organization advocating family-conscious communities.
Parents also have to juggle the need to keep their children safe with the need to keep their children engaged.
Sandra Dawson, a mom of three who runs a small afterschool arts program in Oak Park, recommends looking for a program that fits the children's personalities.
"Just observe what they do," she says, suggesting parents note whether their child prefers outdoor or indoor activities, larger or smaller groups, and creative or physical activities.
Samelson urges parents ask children. "Talk to them, engage them, make them part of the solution," she says.
Since children's interests change as they get older, there are various types of programming, according to Jill Bradley, chief program officer for the Carole Robertson Center in Chicago. The center, a nonprofit organization, serves 130 children in its afterschool program at its three locations.
Younger children may need more recreational activities, offering them a "balanced day."
But to find what you need, Dawson recommends parents talk to their child's principal or teachers to see what is available. She also suggests parents talk with each other.
Bradley also recommends the Cook County Child Care Resource and Referral Service, a program run by Action for Children and Child Care Initiatives of Jane Addams Hull House. Parents in Cook County can call (773) 687-4000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss available childcare programs. In Chicago, the city has set up listing of afterschool options on the Web site www.chicagokidstart.org.
The age-old dilemma While younger children need afterschool care, some older children can care for themselves. But parents have to decide if their child is ready.
Illinois law doesn't stipulate at what age it is appropriate for children to be left on their own. The law does list 15 factors in deciding if children have been left alone for an inappropriate amount of time, including age, number of unsupervised children, duration of time alone and the time of day, according to the Department of Children and Family Services.
Catherine Cocose of Huntley allows her son, Adam, 14, to be home alone after school. "There are not very many programs out there for teens," she says, adding some programs at Harper College cost more than she earns.
Illinois does not provide funding for programs serving children above age 12, Bradley says, but those older children can benefit from afterschool care.
"Parents are very nervous about leaving their children in self-care," says Bradley. "For some it's a real safety issue."
Until two years ago Adam was in afterschool care at the YMCA. "I like choosing what I do instead of someone else choosing for me," Adam says, adding if there were programs for teens he would consider doing them "because then it's better being with people my age than by myself."
Cocose says she is always worried about her son being on his own. She calls him often after school and gives him rules for when he is on his own.
Despite Cocose's anxiety about Adam being on his own, she says he enjoys it. "He feels a huge sense of responsibility" even though she has neighbors watch to make sure he sticks to the rules.
Evanston mom Allyn says parents should work together to help each other. "Everybody is dealing with the situation on their own," Allyn says. "We have to decide that it's important to us as a society." Afterschool check list • Check with your child's school • Check the local YMCA • Check with your local park district • Check with other parents for program recommendations • Check with your children to find a program with the best fit
Resources • Action for Children's Child Care Resource and Referral Service (773) 687-4000 Referral hotline Monday to Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. www.actforchildren.org. e-mail: email@example.com.
• Chicago Kid's Start afterschool care guide www.chicagokidstart.org (773) 553-3590
Alissa Calabrese is a Chicago Parent intern and a student at Northwestern University.