Magazine article American Libraries

Why Library Homework Centers Extend Society's Safety Net: Latching onto the Needs of Latchkey Children Unlocks Community Goodwill. (Service)

Magazine article American Libraries

Why Library Homework Centers Extend Society's Safety Net: Latching onto the Needs of Latchkey Children Unlocks Community Goodwill. (Service)

Article excerpt

Happily, many of today's librarians understand and appreciate how interrelated school and public library services are, particularly just after classes end for the day. While no two after-school homework programs are completely alike, the motivation for developing such projects is strikingly similar throughout the country. Reasons for providing homework help are either internally driven, such as the library's need to control a critical latchkey situation, or motivated by external forces, such as fulfilling a citywide mandate to offer after-school prevention programs for at-risk youth.

At the very least, a library's homework-help program offers kids a designated place to go after school where they can get help with their class work. At its best, the program offers positive human interaction and scholastic support that might otherwise be missing from the youngster's life. "This program encourages kids to finish school," explains Anita Hernandez, library assistant at Monterey County (Calif.) Libraries' Castroville branch after-school program. "Parents are often not home to help their kids or don't understand their kids' homework."

Many library practitioners have come to embrace formalized homework programs. But the notion of public librarians helping students with their school assignments has not always been popular, despite the growing need for such support. The baby boom of the post--World War II era led to children visiting libraries in unprecedented numbers during the 1950s. By the early 1960s, this "student problem" (as the situation was then called) got so out of hand that public librarians started limiting use of their facilities. Reference service to youngsters was curtailed or denied altogether; library-use permits were required from teachers and/or parents; and in many towns boys and girls were not allowed to use their local library on the same evenings.

This attitude, described by Don Sager as the "blackboard curtain" in a January/February 1997 Public Libraries article ("Beating the Homework Blues"), remained prevalent well into the late 1970s when I, as a young public librarian, learned to treat students as problem patrons.

Enforcing the blackboard curtain

Instead of answering their reference questions, I spent my afternoons monitoring their behavior, as youngsters occupied every seat in the building. Later, at another library, my director discouraged me from helping students with their school assignments. "Homework assistance is the purview of the school librarian," she admonished. "How can we ever expect school libraries to be fully funded if we public librarians help children with their homework!"

Fortunately, the need for community-based after-school programs has become well established through research. In 1992, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development published a report revealing that the most dangerous time of day for youth is the three hours following school. During this period, kids are more susceptible to negative peer pressure and illegal activities. For this reason, the Carnegie group recommended that communities create support networks for young adolescents, including after-school programs where kids can acquire useful experiences to promote healthy growth and development. Any number of adult community leaders, including librarians, may serve as agents in this process.

A federal study, Working for Children: Safe and Smart After-School Programs (April 2000), conducted by the U.S. Justice and Education departments, found that children who are left alone when school ends have more difficulties with their classwork than those who participate in after-school programs. Not only is the latter group of students more likely to succeed academically, but they are also much more self-confident. In addition, these children are more likely to develop stronger social skills and to learn how to handle conflicts in an acceptable manner. After-school programs help develop relationships between youth and caring adults, as well as building partnerships with families, schools, and communities. …

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