Debbie Zipes knows the problem: More than 220,000 Indiana kids go home unsupervised every day after school, putting them potentially at-risk during the highest-crime hours between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
As president of the Indiana Afterschool Network, she also knows the solution: Get those students involved in after-school programs across the state.
But in a cash-strapped state where advocates struggle to get enough money for needed programs during the school day, it’s hard to get much attention for programs that happen before and after class. A bill to support these so called “out of school time” programs didn’t get funded in the Indiana General Assembly this year, and other efforts to boost the programs can’t do much more than make recommendations.
The result is just 11 percent of Indiana kids are served by before- and after-school programs — not nearly enough, Zipes said. That compares to 18 percent nationally.
“Across the state, funding is very … transient,” Zipes said. “These programs are not in every school, they are not in every community.”
The biggest hurdle to expanding out of school time programs is cost. Legislation in the Indiana General Assembly this year created an advisory board to explore ways to expand the programs, but the bill had its funding stripped out before it could become law.
That leaves many schools to continue charging fees for the sports, arts and enrichment programs offered before and after school, putting them out of reach for low-income families.
It’s another knock against low-income kids who already tend to lag behind their peers in school. If schools are offering extra supports to kids after school, it doesn’t make sense to limit them only to wealthier kids, Zipes said.
“There are kids doing karate and building robots, compared to kids going home alone and watching video games,” Zipes said.
Kids from low-income families get 6,000 to 8,000 fewer hours of enrichment by the time they hit eighth grade, she said.
“We need to have these additional supports recognizing that parents are struggling with a lot of different things that are going to get in the way of what kids need.”
But even if all kids could afford to participate, the other issue in Indiana is that there simply aren’t enough programs to serve all of the kids who are interested.
“Right now many kids are on waiting lists,” Zipes said. “We’re not meeting the need.”
Some programs go out of their way to serve kids who need them most.
The At Your School program offers some of its programs at no cost to families who are poor enough to qualify for school lunch assistance, have a history of low test scores or meet other criteria demonstrating they have a high need for the program.
At Your School charges families with more resources about $60 to $80 a week and offer assistance to those who can’t afford the full price, said Leslie Hankins, the director of development and marketing for the program. The program is at 39 Indiana schools, including Indianapolis Public School’s Sidener Academy.
AYS focuses on making sure kids have time to do their homework and gives them healthy snacks — even seconds and thirds, if they ask.
“We don’t know if the kids are going to be eating once they leave us,” said Marsha Austin, the program director for AYS at Sidener.
Sidener has a mid-sized program, with about 57 total kids enrolled. On an afternoon right after spring break, about 20 kids gathered around tables in the AYS room at Sidener. They raced in once the final bell rang, collected their snack of clementines, celery sticks and peanut butter, and plopped down in their seats.
“Who has homework?” Austin asked. Hands shot up across the room. “Sit at your tables and read quietly so kids with homework can work.”
Every day involves this quiet time, Hankins said, making homework one less thing parents have to worry about when they pick up their kids around 6 p.m., but the program is not all study hall. Kids in the Sidener program dart in and out for school activities, such as karate club, chess club or Girl Scouts. The program organizes visits from artists who lead projects and from speakers who talk about issues like bullying.
“It’s building blocks to things that help as they get older,” Hankins said. “It’s not just babysitting or hanging out in the gym.”
Indiana needs more programs like these — especially for the state’s neediest kids, Zipes said. But, at least this year, the political will wasn’t there.
When Zipes testified before the House Education Committee in February on a bill that would create an advisory board for out-of-school programs and set up a mechanism to fund them in the future, some lawmakers were skeptical.
“We already have existing programs like this,” said Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour. “Are we creating another redundant program that’s just going to stretch the already tight dollar of the taxpayer?”
Lucas, along with other Republican lawmakers, said districts and communities should decide for themselves what programs to fund and how to fund them. Ultimately, Lucas said, it falls to parents to care for children, not the government. Rep. Rhonda Rhoads, R-Corydon, said programs that are too heavily subsidized lead to less parental oversight.
“When you have some skin in the game, you are going to be paying more attention to your children than if you just turn it over to someone else,” Rhoads said.
The bill eventually passed and was signed into law, but the funding component was removed. The remaining legislation calls for a committee of educators, state policymakers, parents and community members to study the state’s existing programs and report back to lawmakers by Nov. 1. Committee members will be chosen by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz and the state Family and Social Services Administration.
As a foster parent, Zipes has seen first-hand how more school involvement has helped change kids. Even though funding is still elusive, she said she’s grateful that the discussion at the capitol has expanded the the conversation around the potential benefits of out-of-school programs.
“I think the power of that advisory committee is going to be really impactful,” Zipes said. “It’s just a huge opportunity to really look at what the state landscape is and really what it will take so that all kids have equal access.”