When Katie Cherbini and her family moved 1,000 miles — from Arizona to California — smack in the middle of the school year, she soon discovered a sobering reality. To accommodate both parents’ full-time work schedules, her two elementary-aged kids would need after-school care five days a week, but the programs offered at her children’s new school were fully enrolled.

“I needed coverage, period,” Cherbini says. “And the nanny route, at $20 per hour, wasn’t going to work for our family financially.”

Finding herself alone just when that proverbial village would come in handy, Cherbini started visiting a local park to ask everyone she met about aftercare. Eventually, one parent told Cherbini about a local online parent forum with a list of after-school programs. She found space at a nearby private school that offered affordable after-school programs to students not enrolled at that school. In the end, Cherbini was one of the lucky ones.

Latchkey nation

When an after-school care crisis hits, who are you going to call? For most working parents, aftercare is essential; but in many communities there are few guarantees. In-school programs are often overenrolled or have strict eligibility guidelines. Community programs can be expensive and difficult to get to, and the best ones often have waiting lists as well.

The result? Many kids don’t get the care they need in the witching hours between the time school ends and the moment parents arrive home from work. According to the Afterschool Alliance, a group of organizations that research and advocate for after-school care, 8.4 million children attend after-school programs, but an estimated 18.5 million children need it, leaving as many as 15 million kids alone — often unsupervised — after school.

This dearth affects families beyond their need for care. A survey of New York City parents whose kids attended a city program shows that reliable after-school programs yield the additional benefit of job security: 74 percent of parents agreed that after-school programs make it easier to keep their job, and 73 percent reporting missing less work once their child started the program.

Aftercare achievement gap

To further complicate matters, research shows not all aftercare is created equal, and the quality of programs can have a great effect on children’s success. One analysis of 68 studies of after-school programs found that students enrolled in high-quality after-school programs have better attendance, behave better, and score higher on tests than their counterparts who don’t attend such programs. Thus, choosing aftercare can be almost as important — and difficult — as choosing a school.

Not just for little ones

Despite middle schoolers’ protestations about not needing “day care,” Jean Baldwin Grossman, a researcher at Princeton’s Office of Population Research and an expert on after-school programs, says quality aftercare is even more important for children at this stage. Making matters more complicated, kids are more likely to be picky, requiring an after-school program that focuses on a skill or a sport that appeals to them.

According to Grossman, the most important aspect of aftercare for older kids is strong interpersonal relationships and excellent group management by attentive, supportive adults. Having another adult in a young teen’s orbit can be crucial developmentally, says Grossman. “When children reach middle-school age, they want more autonomy. Having non-parental adults who kids can turn to with questions, who provide compassionate ears, are really influential.”

Signs of a great after-school program

• Clear goals and a program designed to meet those goals.
• Space, staff, and resources to offer structured activities.
• A schedule that allows students time to learn and practice skills — art, sports, etc.
• Homework help.
• Staff who relate well to students, manage groups well, maintain high expectations, and keep students motivated.
• Flexible attendance schedules and reasonable cost.
• Established communication channels with parents and school staff.

7 places to look

1) Start with the ultimate insider: the school secretary. Many schools have the most current information on what’s offered within the district.
2) Contact your city’s recreation department. Many have after-school centers and also provide transportation to those sites from a child’s school.
3) Research local faith-based organizations — including churches and synagogues — to see what programs they provide.
4) Check out YMCA and Boys and Girls clubs in your area. They often have programs for teens, such as mentoring groups, homework clubs, and sports.
5) To find for-profit after-school centers and programs, search online in your area and for your child’s areas of interest.
6) Go social. Post your needs on Facebook, Twitter, or neighborhood listservs or online forums to get ideas about the best local programs for your child.
7) Ask the experts: other parents. In parks, cafes, and community centers, don’t be shy — ask other parents what worked for them.

Have a plan A, B — and C

Finally, it’s wise to have a back-up plan. Not all programs work for all kids, so it’s important to be able to switch programs if necessary. If one program doesn’t work out, it’s great not to have to start your search from scratch. Sometimes switching midyear may be the only way to get into a program with a long waiting list.

Having choices makes the difference between being able to say, “No, thanks” when you get a call offering a space and ending up taking whatever you can get at the last minute — even if it’s not the best fit for you or your child.