SEMINOLE, Fla. — At 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, long after most students at Osceola Middle School have gone home, principal Robert Jackson notices a girl waiting in the main office.
"What's the matter, Brenda?" he asks.
Nothing, she replies. But, she wonders, could she have permission to stay in the office until her mother picks her up at 5?
"It's OK to wait if you'll answer the phones for me," Jackson tells her. She agrees, and he returns to the business at hand.
The interruption illustrates a subject much on Jackson's mind these days: What to do with the growing number of students who have no supervision after school.
Too old for baby-sitters, too young for part-time jobs, 6th- to 8th-graders with working parents often find themselves with limited and unsatisfactory options. Some go home to an empty house. Others "hang out" with friends. Still others, like Brenda, must wait at school.
As the ranks of working parents grow, middle-school administrators across the country face similar challenges. Most after-school care serves only elementary students. And many parents believe that once children reach middle school, they are mature enough to be left alone.
"Just because 11-year-olds are in a middle school doesn't mean they don't need the same protection they did when 6th grade was still part of elementary school," he says. Sixth-graders, he adds, make up one-third of the 875 students in this sprawling, tan brick and stucco building.
No nationwide statistics exist on how many middle-school students are considered latchkey children. But in February, when Jackson asked parents in this middle-class community to complete a survey that began with the question, "What does your child currently do before or after school?" more than half the respondents indicated students are either alone or in the company of siblings. Some 40 students expressed interest in school-based activities before and after school.
Jackson is now putting the finishing touches on a program that will run from 7:15 to 8:15 a.m. and from 3:45 to 5 p.m. For $6 a week or $17 a month, participants may choose activities such as team sports, creative arts, music, outdoor education, swimming and field trips. The program will be run by the YMCA.
"Kids want to get off that bench in front of the school and do something," Jackson says.
Already some are doing just that. Recently, Osceola Middle School joined seven other area middle schools in offering an "after-school adventure" called the In Crowd. Modeled after a program developed by the YWCA in Atlanta, the In Crowd brings together 30 students and two trained adult facilitators for snacks and discussions of topics such as current music, dating behavior, drugs and alcohol, teen stress and discrimination.
"They don't mean 'discrimination' in the way adults might think of it," says Marte Toohill, program director at the Clearwater YWCA, which sponsors the project. "It's discrimination between different types of music, skateboarders and non-skateboarders, and people who dress differently."
Toohill says the program grew out of a youth forum sponsored by the United Way. "Students said they would like to have a place where they could meet their friends after school, along with an adult who would listen to them and give them information they didn't feel comfortable asking their parents or teachers about."
Tom Warren, a facilitator for In Crowd sessions since the program began March 1, says, "Kids tell us they love to come to this group. I think a lot of their positive response is because they have a place to go on an afternoon when they would otherwise not have anything to do."
Recently, parents of students registered for In Crowd programs gathered at Clearwater YWCA for a meeting of their own.
"We found out parents don't know what to do with kids when they get to middle school," Toohill says. "They're so afraid of hurting the child's feelings, or of having the child say they're not going to love them anymore. They need to know it's all right not to always agree with your child. It's OK for parents to say 'no.' "
All these efforts and programs, Toohill emphasizes, are important in guiding middle-school students through the often choppy waters of early adolescence.
"Middle-school students are the most neglected group," she says, despite the fact that their needs are great.
"Their bodies are changing. Their minds are changing. They're trying to find a niche for themselves. They need to be listened to. They need programs and support and understanding."