Kids playing

(WOMENSENEWS)–The national debate over education tends to focus on what happens between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., the traditional school day. But what happens when the school day is over but the workday keeps going for parents?

Many kids go home to empty houses or hit the streets, left unsupervised, unstimulated and sometimes unsafe.

Others go to afterschool programs, which have been shown to have tremendous benefits for working families.

On Oct. 23, millions of people around the country, and at U.S. military bases abroad, will be gathering to celebrate such programs. Thousands of community centers, science centers, malls, parks, recreation centers and state capitals are hosting all kinds of events–everything from rallies, science fairs, movie nights and fun runs–to highlight the critical role these programs play in our lives.

The Empire State Building is getting in on the act too; it will be bathed in yellow light to mark the occasion, a symbolic illumination designed to call attention to the importance of keeping our collective lights on in the afterschool hours.

The 15th annual “Lights on Afterschool” is organized by the Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that supports afterschool and summer programming.

Last week the group released a survey showing that more children than ever are participating in afterschool programs. In 2014, the tally was 10.2 million children, a stunning 57 percent increase from 2004, when 6.5 million children participated.

The Downside

The bad news: supply straggles way behind demand.

Parents of nearly 20 million children said they would enroll their child in an afterschool program if one were available, according to the survey America After 3PM. In other words, for every child enrolled in a program, two more can’t get a spot.

Demand is especially high among low-income, African American and Hispanic families.

“Our country is nowhere close to meeting the demand for afterschool,” Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant said in a press statement. More than 11 million school-age children–including more than 800,000 kids in elementary school–spend time without adult supervision after school.

Today the majority of parents are working parents, and we need the peace of mind that comes from knowing our kids are well cared for during and after school so we can advance in our jobs and provide for our families. We all know quality education is critical during the school day. But it’s also important after school, a time when kids are more likely to engage in juvenile crime and experiment with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and sex, according to the Afterschool Alliance.

Afterschool programs do way more than keep kids out of trouble. They offer academic support, including homework assistance (the bane of every tired parent at the end of the day). They also offer physical and other enriching activities.

“Afterschool is a wise investment but, unfortunately, we’re not investing nearly enough,” former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in the same press release. “America After 3PM shows that we are meeting only about one-third of the demand for afterschool programs. We need federal, state and local governments, philanthropies and businesses to step up and provide the resources that will put us on the path to making afterschool available to all.”

I’m with the ‘Governator’ on this one. Even in these tight fiscal times, we can’t afford not to support families in this crucial way.