June 2, 2023

Schools are open. But parents say more after-school options still needed.

Until last week, Abby Wentworth Joseph set a daily alarm for 2:45 p.m. It reminded Wentworth Joseph and her husband to stop working, rush to their second grader’s Rogers Park school, and escort her to an after-school program at a nearby park.

A teacher recently volunteered to fill in the gap since there’s no monitor to walk the children from Jordan Community Elementary School to the park. Still, Wentworth Joseph thought: “This does not make any sense. It’s aftercare. What is aftercare for?”

Across town, Michelle Bautista is performing logistical backbends of her own. She and her husband rearranged their work schedule to pick up their elementary-aged children from Galileo Scholastic Academy, their Little Italy school, by 2:45 p.m. This week, the K-8 school began offering a new suite of after-school programs that extends pickup time to 3:45 three days a week. Better — yet still hard to manage for parents who work until 5 p.m. or later.

“The pandemic has highlighted a lot of difficulties in our society. It doesn’t surprise me that it also highlighted that working parents cannot access consistent, affordable aftercare,” said Bautista, a mother of two.

Her choices at the start of the school year included a school-based program run by the YMCA, which cost $600 a month for two children (in addition to the cost, Bautista worried that the staff might not be vaccinated), and a program at the nearby park district that typically runs a waitlist.

As school leaders pushed for a full-time return to in-person classes this fall, after-school programs often seemed like an afterthought despite being a critical piece of the caregiving puzzle for working parents.

In Chicago, cost, lack of clear data, and logistical hurdles — such as who is designated to take children from school to after-school programs — create barriers for families in need of childcare. That can create additional financial burdens and stress for parents whose jobs don’t give the flexibility to pick children up from school or ferry them to an aftercare program. Sometimes, it means children go home unsupervised.

In Illinois, compared to other states, there are also not enough programs statewide to meet the after-school demand.

A 2020 report by Afterschool Alliance projected that about 280,000 of the state’s 2 million schoolchildren, or 14%, are alone and unsupervised between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. According to the survey, 49% of Illinois parents surveyed said they didn’t have suitable options and 56% worried about cost.

Slightly more than half said that their child did not have a safe way to travel to and from a program.

An influx of federal stimulus money for schools and school children was supposed to make it easier for parents to find affordable options. And for some families, it has.

Chicago Public Schools has plowed $21 million of federal stimulus funds into expanding after-school programs this fall, and steered millions more in federal “21st Century Learning” grants to nonprofits, community groups, and schools so that 97 elementary and high campuses in the city now offer free programs for students. That’s about a fifth of its district-run campuses.

All together, 32,000 children, about 10% of the district’s overall student count, are enrolled in an after-school program, the district said in response to questions from Chalkbeat. (The district did not provide requested data on what percentage pay a fee or co-pay versus how many attend for free; nor did it provide a list of schools with programs as requested.)

Schools aren’t the only providers in the constellation of after-school offerings. Chicago’s park district offers after-school care at 114 locations at a considerably lower cost than fee-based private programs and had enrolled 3,350 students as of this week. But capacity is currently 54%, meaning the park district could serve nearly twice as many students, a park district spokeswoman said, underscoring the complications of supply and demand.

Clouding that picture, too, is absence of any streamlined data that show who is searching for after-school care and in what neighborhoods and any full picture of available programs across a constellation of schools, parks, nonprofits, and community centers. “It is very hard to get concrete about some of those things when we have such a diffuse system that does not have great data,” said one advocate at an August public meeting about child care and after-school organized by 47th Ward Alderman Matt Martin.

Without the data, and a clear picture of family needs, parents say it can be hard to find options that meet their needs, that they can afford, and that stay open until 5 or 6 p.m.

Then there are the logistical tangles, such as Wentworth Joseph’s experience shepherding her second grader from a city-run public school to a city-run park program on the same street.

“It feels wild,” said Wentworth Joseph. “When we moved to the neighborhood, and asked about registering (my daughter at the school), one of the things I said was, What is your aftercare situation? (The answer was), We don’t have aftercare. They go home with their mothers.”

“I was so bewildered,” she said, adding rhetorically: “Aren’t the majority of mothers working?”

Asked about the transportation situation between park programs and schools, Michele Lemons, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District, said that the vast majority of parks do not provide transportation. A small number of park supervisors have made arrangements with school administrators in close proximity to them to transport students by foot, but those are the exception and the park district doesn’t provide bus service.

Jodi Grant, the executive director of the national Afterschool Alliance, points to some cities, such as Providence, R.I., and Nashville, Tenn., where mayors or civic leaders have strengthened after-school menus as core parts of their safety and education platforms across public school campuses, universities, parks, libraries, and nonprofits. One powerful motivator behind those efforts were concerns about keeping children safe — a consideration in a city like Chicago where more than 250 children under the age of 17 have been injured or killed by gun violence this calendar year.

“Mayors can be an interesting player in pulling all of these pieces together,” Grant said.

Solutions are not far out of reach, Grant said, and she’d like to see districts deploy more federal money to address the issue.

Already, the federal 21st Century grants have fostered some collaborations here, which could be a model moving forward.

On Chicago’s West Side, Carole Robertson Center for Learning — which is already partnered to provide after-school programs at two elementary schools — is opening a new program at Lawndale Community Academy in North Lawndale. Kenny Riley, the senior director of out-of-school time programs at Carole Robertson, said that COVID-19 uncertainty made some families reluctant to sign on at first. But each week, more have signed up.

To design the program, his team surveyed families and students about what they wanted the after-school project to offer. Top of the list: drama, sports, and cooking classes. The center hired a consultant to train staff to teach yoga and meditation.

COVID-19 logistics — for example, keeping students in smaller pods — have put some limitations on what types of programming the center can offer. But the pandemic has also magnified the deep need of parents and families, he said.

The challenge now, he said, is keeping programs going when the federal funds dry up — and making sure such funds are easily accessible to large and small providers alike.

“In Illinois, in order to access the funds, you have to have already strong and established relationships with the school principals who are knowledgeable about the funding options available through CPS,” he said. “Not only that, but an organization needs an active vendor number, proof of staff vaccinations, CPS-specific background checks, finances submitted, and a contract with the school. There are too many steps involved for a smaller organization to even try to participate.”

Sana Jafri, the executive director of Chicago Learning Exchange, which works with 200 nonprofit organizations that serve Chicago youth, says reducing such hurdles will lead to more after-school options available to families. The nonprofit recently surveyed its members and found groups have deep capacity and expertise to offer a bevy of creative programs to schools — from robotics to coding to theatre — but frequently encounter roadblocks. Some roadblocks had to do with funding; others with basic communication with schools.

“Chicago is well-poised to have a model program,” Jafri said. “We have that infrastructure, from out of school time programs to universities, but we need the connective tissue to make it happen.”

This article was originally posted on Schools are open. But parents say more after-school options still needed.

Sydney Boles