Rachel Espino knew the San Francisco public school her son would soon be attending let out at 1:50 each afternoon, but she assumed there’d be space for everyone in its on-site after-school program, Children’s After School Arts (CASA). Over the summer of 2019, an eight-months-pregnant Espino learned otherwise. This year, as in all years prior, there was a wait list for kindergartners. When a drop-in spot on Fridays opened up, Espino grabbed it. Wednesday afternoons, her son’s uncle agreed to cover. The Espinos shelled out for a one-hour enrichment class organized by the school’s PTA on Mondays and Tuesdays. But that still left Espino and her husband, who both work 9-to-5 jobs, needing to pick up their son before 3 p.m. three days a week. After some tough conversations at work, Espino now goes in early.
“I’m the first one to leave, and everyone’s staring at you,” she says. The whole thing has caused the family significant “emotional stress, just to try to find resources.”
Her family is not alone. According to a report from Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization, “11.3 million children head for an unsupervised environment after the last school bell rings.” Nationally, for every child enrolled in an after-school program, two are waiting to get in. Every year the organizers of CASA — a program so unabashedly focused on social justice that it landed in an episode of NPR’s This American Life — apply for grants and host fundraisers in an attempt to expand. Yet funding from San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families would need to double in order to eliminate its waitlist. A bill introduced by Senator Kamala Harris in November, the Family Friendly Schools Act, seeks to offer federal money to schools that experiment with staying open until 6 p.m. to “align the school day with the work day to better support working families.”
Growing demand for after-school care, up from 30 percent of families in 2004 to 41 percent in 2014, surely reflects increasing discomfort with independence in childhood, a topic ably covered by journalist Kim Brooks, but it also owes to aftercare’s many touted benefits. The hours just after school lets out — 2 to 6 p.m. — are the most popular ones for juvenile crime according to data from the Council for a Strong America. Individual after-school programs have been shown to increase school-day attendance, decrease dropout rates, improve performance on standardized tests, increase homework completion rates, and lead to higher educational aspirations. Teachers in Wisconsin have also reported bumps in class participation, motivation to learn, and behavior. That would make sense, given the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning’s 2007 conclusion that after-school programs improve self-confidence and positive feelings toward school.
A brief from the After School Alliance provides more examples of these upsides plus additional boons, such as helping students successfully transition from one school to another, improving grades, and reducing drug use. Additional research indicates positive effects on literacy and mathematical fluency in at-risk youth. Programs that focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects and the arts can make up for school-day deficiencies in those areas. And after-school programs’ resources can decrease the “homework gap” by equalizing access to human and technological capital in the hours after school lets out.
Why then has the Trump administration three times proposed doing away with the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Initiative, after-school programs’ primary federal funding stream? As of this week, Congress has now thrice rejected the administration’s proposal and even approved a small funding increase.
And yet, after-school care hasn’t gotten the same attention that preschool has in the national debate. Harris’s plan, which would authorize an additional $1.3 billion annually for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, is co-sponsored by Michael Bennet, but none of the other Democratic senators seeking the presidency.
The result of limited, uncertain funding is that too often families like the Espinos have to come up with personalized solutions for what can feel like a personal failure. Yet a 2006 report from the nonprofit Catalyst, conducted in conjunction with the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, concluded that working parents at Fortune 500 companies miss an average of five days of work per year due to a lack of after-school care. When all the math is done, concerns about after-school care end up costing companies over $50 billion in lost productivity annually.
The problem is structural and national, with 63 percent of married-couple families reporting that both parents work. Of course, the wealthy will always be able to find boutique solutions, such as San Francisco’s Rabbit Hole, a “theatrical space” that charges $25 for a 45-minute class (not to mention a nanny to provide transportation). But middle-class and lower-income families are often left with no good, affordable option.
And self-sufficiency is no longer an option. Across the country parents have been arrested and child protective services agencies have become involved when good Samaritans and police officers take issue with children being left to their own devices. One of us called the San Francisco District Attorney’s office in 2018 to ask whether that city would prosecute a parent for allowing a 10-year-old to walk or take public transportation home. The representative said each case would need to be assessed on an individual basis. In other words, no promises. Independent children who seek to navigate their neighborhoods despite this uncertainty often do so alone because parental fear keeps their peers off the streets and out of parks. There is no critical mass of kids, something that makes lack of supervision low risk in many parts of Germany. Adults in the United States, unsettled by the rare sight of a so-called “free range” child, regularly offer these young people concern that can seem an awful lot like harassment.
If we are, at least for the moment, stuck in a world in which being a latchkey kid is no longer safe for parents or children (and advocating for a shorter workday seems like a longshot), Harris is right to push to expand access to high-quality solutions for the gap between caregivers’ work schedules and school hours, especially for low-income families. The cost would surely be offset by the increased tax revenue on the current generation of parents’ additional worker productivity, as well as their higher-achieving children’s increased earnings down the line.
That’s why there’s bipartisan support for expanding after-school options, including from the 5,000-plus sheriffs, police chiefs, and prosecutors involved in an effort called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. But the initiative also has the backing of the American Federation of Teachers and the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
One of CASA’s claims to progressive fame is the instructor who regularly appears in drag. Persia performs at the San Francisco Public Library as well, last year reading holiday-themed books in platform stilettos as part of Drag Queen Story Hour. Leslie Einhorn, one of the writers of this piece, is the director of CASA and an ambassador for Afterschool Alliance. At an event hosted by the nonprofit in Washington, D.C., she met Abigail Swanger, who helps coordinate the Community Kids program in Avery County, N.C. When asked what would happen if she introduced a drag queen in her “small, country community,” Swanger said, “We would probably get fired.” And yet, the two women happily stand together advocating for the attention after-school issues deserve.
Gail Cornwall, a former public school teacher and lawyer, now works as a stay-at-home mother and writer in San Francisco. Leslie Einhorn is the founder and Executive Director of CASA and serves as Afterschool Ambassador for the state of California.