Investing In A More Perfect Future — Increasing Access To After-School Programs For Working Families In New Jersey

In a perfect world, parents wouldn’t have to work if they didn’t want to and if parents did want to work, the end of the workday would coincide exactly with the ring of the school bell. In our less than perfect world, however, there is typically a several hour lapse between the time the school day ends and working parents arrive home. This lapse has created a dilemma for a society in which households with two working parents and single-parent households with one working parent have become increasingly a necessity and a norm.

Statistics show that approximately 40 percent of American youths’ waking hours are “free” hours–the hours not spent in school, at home doing homework or chores, at a job, or participating in other regularly planned activities. Forty percent of all waking hours is a significant chunk of time for young people to have on their hands, especially if a number of “free” hours are spent unsupervised.

The Children’s Aid Society cites studies which have found that juvenile crime triples during after-school hours. This same period of time poses the most serious threat to young people’s safety and well-being. Left unsupervised between the time the school bell rings and dinner is served, children are at a heightened risk of becoming victims of a violent crime and experimenting with drugs, alcohol, and sexual activity.

In contrast, after-school programs have proven to dramatically reduce youth crime, while also improving children’s academic performance and self-esteem. These results are not surprising. Young people are impressionable and eager to learn and try new things. Left unsupervised while parents are at work, many children will rely on peers for stimulation and guidance–or misguidance. On the other hand, after-school programs provide a stable support network where young people can be stimulated mentally and physically through supervised academic, social, and athletic activities. After-school programs, therefore, create numerous obvious benefits for the young people they serve, as well as their parents.

Perhaps less obvious, but still significant, are the benefits which after-school programs create for businesses. Studies have shown that most employee phone calls are made during the afternoon hours when students are out of school and parents are still at work. Repeated phone calls to check on a child’s whereabouts and safety can result in lost productivity for employers, not to mention worrying and distraction for a working parent. Alternatively, knowing a child is safe and sound in an after-school program can do wonders for a working parent’s job performance and an employer’s bottom-line.

I have been a staunch advocate of after-school programs since my days as a Mercer County Freeholder nearly two decades ago, when I founded the Mercer County School-Age Child Care Coalition. In my work with after-school programs and the thousands of children who have benefited from them, I have learned that youth of all ages and all socioeconomic backgrounds need access to supervised after-school activities. This access is critical for helping young children in New Jersey grow into healthy and responsible young adults.

Governor McGreevey’s “NJ After 3” proposal, which will combine public and private support for after-school programs across New Jersey, is a creative and economically feasible initiative. This initiative will help to ensure the well-being of New Jersey’s youth during critical hours of the work day, while making a sound investment in the future of our State. I look forward to working with my colleagues in securing the necessary funding to help make “NJ After 3” a reality, including support for a pilot program in my district. We do not live in a perfect world, but we can certainly do our part to help make New Jersey a more perfect place for working families.

Senate President Pro-Tempore Shirley K. Turner represents the 15th District, which includes parts of Mercer County. The senator is Chair of the Senate Education Committee, and is a member of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.