After-School Limbo

Middle schoolers are often left to their own devices

It's 3:30 in the afternoon, the bell sounds and 1,400 kids are released from Johnston Middle School. Norman Rockwell time -- haven't we all seen that picture?

But not all the kids at this Westbury-area school are running joyously home, being picked up by school buses or chauffeured to lessons or sports activities. For some, there isn't much of anywhere to go or anyone to go home to. So they hang.

They hang outside the school waiting -- some for hours -- waiting for parents, a ride home. Between the ages of 11 and 15, they're too young to work, too old for daycare. They hang around the school in a time limbo created by their age and family circumstances.

Some sit for three hours or more waiting for someone to come pick them up. Others go straight home, but no adults are there.

Educators, police and community volunteers worry about those idle hours. "We certainly may tell them they are supposed to be doing homework, but..." Johnston Principal Joe Nuber says, raising his hands and shrugging his shoulders. He's the driving force behind the after-school effort at his middle school. For the marginal students, he says, a program "might spark an interest that could just turn them around." It isn't just a question of whether the kids get in trouble. It's also a question of whether they're getting the best possible use of their time.

Johnston is not a "bad" school. There's no barbed wire around the open campus, where the student body consists of almost equal parts African-Americans, whites and Hispanics, plus about 5 percent Asian-Americans. Discipline problems are dealt with rigorously, Nuber says, to ensure that the magnet school for the performing arts remains a safe place.

Schools need to regain their place in society as community centers, Nuber believes. When his school puts on a concert, everyone in the neighborhood is invited. In turn, he wants the community to see the schools as more than a repository for children during school hours. "I personally believe that, in just a few years, schools will be open from 7 to 7," Nuber says.

Rogene Gee Calvert, co-chair of COST (Children's Out of School Time) and a member of the joint City/County Commission on Children, two of the groups whose members have worked to see more after-school programs implemented, also believes that schools are the right entities to handle kids after the usual end of the instructional day. "Check with any public library," she says. "A lot of kids end up hanging out there till their parents come pick them up every day. Why can't they hang out at the school libraries?"

One problem is money. The city of Houston and the local school districts do not have a good record of working together on educational funding. City Council members like Rob Todd think matters should stay that way. Last fall, Todd opposed city funding for after-school programs for disadvantaged children, saying the school district should pay for them. The Council did approve $100,000 for an after-school pilot project at 11 schools -- but only after it was pressured by groups including the Metropolitan Organization, a coalition of 45 church congregations. Councilman Chris Bell spoke up for the measure, calling claims that the program's funding was not the city's responsibility "a cop-out."

In a radical departure from the past, Mayor Lee Brown started his reign by pledging $120,000 for after-school programs. He's asking for another $800,000 for after-school funding in his next fiscal budget, the most ever requested in Houston.

Even with the best of intentions, problems remain. More than five months after the City Council voted $100,000 to fund the after-school pilot program, the schools didn't have their money. HISD and the city were still wrangling over paperwork.

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio all have better records, with much more established histories of giving school districts money for after-school education.

"San Antonio has a very good history of getting city involvement in social services," says Leonel Castillo, Mayor Brown's point man on education. "Houston doesn't have that progressive tradition."

On a Monday night in early March, Nuber addressed a meeting of the Johnston Parent Teacher Organization, which was weighing the merits of starting an after-school program. Nuber enumerated some of the problems such a program would face: Many people consider sixth graders old enough to take care of themselves. There are few role models available. There is the cost. There is the work involved in pulling a program like this together.

The turnout of about 25 people was not impressive, particularly since several of those in attendance were actually volunteers running after-school programs in elementary schools -- there to offer advice. Many parents who had initially been supportive of an after-school program changed their minds after finding out there would be a charge for it. They didn't show up for the meeting.

Undaunted, Nuber went ahead, saying that he thinks after-school programs for middle schoolers are even more necessary than those for elementary school children. Middle schoolers, he said, "can experiment with things that can get them into trouble."

Standing by was Castillo, who told the group that the city wants each school to design its own program; there is no city master plan. This is something that should come from the school, its students, parents and teachers and the community. The city, in turn, has agreed in principle that if it builds a swimming pool or a library in a neighborhood, it builds them on a school site.

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