Coalition Urges Extending After School Programs

Coalition Urges Extending After School Programs

Adding a two-hour extension to the after-school programs every weekday at the middle schools around the county is what advocates had in mind with the "Too Old for Day Care - Too Young to Be Left Alone" program.

A combination of school officials, parents and police school resource officers began meetings in an attempt to have the after-school program continue until 6:30 p.m., when parents get home from work.

Mark H. Emery, project director, sees that two-hour slot between the end of the present program and parents' work schedules as an opportunity for idle hands.

"It leaves a lot of time for children to get involved in risky behavior," Emery said. "Violence against youth triples between 3 and 6 p.m."

Reston resident Ruth Toxopeus is one of the project coordinators.

"Most parents would like to see a five-day program extended to 6 or 6:30," Toxopeus said.

All but one of the county's middle schools have the after-school program, in which students come to study, play games and relax until 4:30 p.m. a few days a week. An initial meeting took place on May 31, 2003, about extending it, and Toxopeus polled some of the students about their likes and dislikes there. The top answers regarding preferences were more homework time, physical activity, relaxing and food.

"These are the things they talked about," Toxopeus said.

Toxopeus' children went through the Fairfax County Public Schools around 10 years ago. In the last few years, she's seen different factors influencing students in a negative way. She was a PTA president at Terraset Elementary in Reston, and she's been involved ever since. She now puts in about 17 hours a week at the Fairfax Partnership for Youth.

"There were a lot of issues out there, but it wasn't in their face every day. I think what's important now is the rise of gangs in school," she said.

"There are a lot of after-school activities at the high-school level, but not at the middle-school level, and that's what we're after," Toxopeus said.

Holmes Middle School in Annandale has a program five days a week with extended hours. It's run by the Fairfax County Office for Children.

"That's the model we want," said Susan Lydick, the coordinator of Robinson Community Coalition.

THE AFTER-SCHOOL programs are funded by a state incentive grant, the Community Service Board and the Safe and Drug-Free Youth Office in Fairfax County Public Schools, as part of the "Get Real About Violence" programs, according to Emery. Students that participate in the program pay on a sliding scale, and advocates are trying to raise more funds from business participation, foundations and community.

"It's a matter of trying to weave all these programs together," Emery said.

Currently, the schools are providing support with the use of the facilities, late buses and volunteer teachers. Although these do not take a substantial part of the school budget, an extension will require more money.

"In the long term, it will be taxpayer-supported," Emery said. He noted the advantages in reducing crime and disruptive behavior, which are also paid for by taxpayers.

"A relatively small investment in after-school activities can reap benefits. It's important for crime reduction," Emery said.

The only negative reaction that Lydick has seen is from the school officials who think the program is asking for more participation from them. Lydick is looking elsewhere.

"Everyone agrees that the schools can't do the whole job," she said. "They're already doing about as much as they can do. We need to get the whole community involved."

Advocates of the program have had several meetings so far and plan two more in the coming months.

"They've been very well-attended," Toxopeus said.

A meeting will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 4, at Robinson Secondary to address the feeder schools for that area. Lydick has been gaining support for the program in the Robinson area. She has a daughter who's a sophomore at Robinson.

"We need to be getting the whole community involved. Anybody I talk to, I ask them to tell others," Lydick said.