A Father's Day Wish

This Father's Day, I'm thinking about the many ways that dads and moms keep the ever-whirling merry-go-round of life with small kids manageable. I see it in my own home, in the daily hubbub that accompanies my wife's and my life with our four kids, all of them under eight. I see it in my role as the pastor of a church in Maryland, particularly in the tired eyes of the moms and dads who somehow manage to get the kids together and out the door on Sunday mornings. And I have seen it in my work on policy issues in government and at a think tank.

From these vantage points, it's clear that in our most important task in life, we parents need all the help we can get.

For much of our children's lives, my wife and I have been working and volunteering outside the home. We know the nagging worry that never quite leaves one during the work day, and particularly in the afternoons when school lets out. Our kids may be out of sight, but they're never out of mind. So what are they doing right now? Are they being careful? Are the adults looking after them keeping a close watch? What new discovery of childhood am I missing?

As our own kids age into elementary school, I know we'll be taking advantage of some of the after-school programs that are an afternoon lifeline for many of the parents in our church and community. For many of them, as for many parents around the nation with kids in after-school programs, the two or three hours between the final bell of the school day and quitting time at work are fertile ground for problems. In the absence of some sort of organized, supervised activity of the sort provided by after-school, a lot of kids fritter time away. Others get into trouble. In fact, those unsupervised hours of the afternoon are prime time for many inappropriate behaviors.

By contrast, after-school programs keep kids safe, inspire them to learn, and help working parents. In a typical after-school program, students might start the afternoon with a nutritious snack, complete homework with help from staff as needed, and then move onto one of a seemingly endless list of activities that can include robotics, tutoring, individual and team sports, music, dance, mathematics, chess, and more.

In fact, because programs typically forge community partnerships, after-school kids can have a chance to spend time during after-school with local business leaders or the heads of community groups, giving them a chance to learn about and engage with their community in ways they can't during the regular school day.

After-school programs also give kids a chance to dig deeper into subjects they encounter during the regular school day. That's particularly true in the case of science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- the STEM disciplines that are so vital to many kids' future employment prospects. The structure of after-school is well suited to the kinds of hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up work that brings STEM subjects to life for kids -- doing scientific experiments, building robots, growing plants and more. Those community and faith-based partnerships are a vital resource, as well, as programs work with local colleges and universities, nearby science or technology companies, and with programs at science centers designed specifically for kids.

Reams of research have shown us the results: Students in quality after-school programs improve their attendance during the regular school day, do better on standardized tests, up their grades, and have fewer behavior problems.

In short, after-school works for our children, our youth and our families.

The problem is that we don't have enough programs to meet the overwhelming demand. About 8.4 million kids are in after-school programs now, but the parents of about 18 million more say they'd sign their children up if programs were available to them. Unfortunately, they're not, and that mostly comes down to funding. Programs rely on funding from a number of sources, including from the parents whose kids they're serving, as well as a mixture of support from school systems, state and local governments, local charities and individual donors.

The biggest funding stream nationally, however, is the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, which provides dollars to states that in turn make grants to individual programs. It's now more than a decade old, but it has been underfunded for most of that time. As a result, states can give grants to a handful of qualified programs, but must turn down many more. Many of the programs that lose out just can't make a go of it financially, and are forced to trim their offerings, reduce the number of kids they serve, or close their doors altogether.

That leaves some kids without supervision in the afternoons, and their working parents in a lurch.
So I'm grateful for the after-school programs that are out there for my family and many in our community. But on this Father's Day, I wish more dads and moms had the same opportunities.