- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 6, 2016

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - Organizations serving school-age children are struggling to meet an increasing demand for after-school programming, as more parents are seeking spots for their kids and, in many cases, coming up short.

“We hate it when we have to limit numbers,” said Andrew Fleck, recreation program manager for Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation, “because we know it puts parents in a bind.”

The valley-wide problem has swelled in recent years, putting pressure on local programs and facilities to expand and accommodate for kids needing a place and a purpose between the hours of 3 and 5 p.m. The solution is yet to be determined.

Paid programs as well as free ones are feeling the pressure. Many have increased enrollment where possible. But staffing and space constraints have made it difficult for some programs to broaden their reach.

“We usually have a staffing shortage in September, which is when we lose all of our summer help and when the winter seasonal workers haven’t arrived,” Fleck said.

In the fall of 2015 the Rec Center’s Kid’s Club program, designed for children in kindergarten through second grade, was capped at 30 children. In December the program expanded to about 40, and Fleck expects to accommodate another swell in January and February of at least 50 kids.

The Colter Discovery Club program, serving third- to fifth-graders, went from taking 24 children in September to registering 35 in January, Fleck said. While numbers are increasing for the winter season, he said space is still lagging behind previous years, largely due to a lack of staff.

“In our peak years we were at 60 to 65 kids in the Kid’s Club program,” Fleck said.

Other organizations, such as the Jackson Hole Children’s Museum, have the resources to expand but are crunched in spaces too small to expand.

“We don’t have the space to run two programs at the same time,” said Julie D’Amours, education director of the museum. “We also have our patrons that are using the children’s museum.”

The museum, which is tucked in every nook and cranny of a 2,200-square-foot home off North King Street, recently made a pitch to the Parks and Rec advisory board for the unclaimed 6,500 square feet of flex space in the master plan. The space would allow the nonprofit to expand its current programming and also develop programming for middle-school-age children and teens up to age 15.

A partnership between the museum and the Teton Literacy Center allowed the center to expand one of its after-school programs to about 110 kids, a jump from the previous year, Executive Director Laura West Soltau said.

In addition to the children’s museum the Literacy Center hosts programs at its facility in the Flat Creek Business Center and at Jackson Elementary School and the middle school. The well-used museum partnership, alongside the Literacy Center’s tutoring program, which accepts between 100 and 120 students, is free.

Teton County Library saw a 30 percent increase in the number of elementary-age kids during the last school year, and numbers have continued to grow this school year. Over the course of nearly two weeks in November staff counted an average of 58 children a day in the Youth Wing, Assistant Director Isabel Zumel said.

The jump has triggered a redistribution of staff during peak hours, and up to five employees are assigned to work in the Youth Wing during between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m., Zumel said.

“The increase in the number of kids coming after school seems to coincide with the times where the more affordable programs, like the Rec Center, have had challenges providing a certain number of slots for after-school programs,” Zumel said.

But the library falls in a unique category, because it does not offer any structured programming and staff members are not intended to provide child care.

This fall the library launched a marketing campaign to clarify how it expects its young patrons to behave, and the library board is considering tweaking its child policy.

Currently children 8 and older may be left at the library unsupervised. The policy change doesn’t affect that but adds a clause that kids younger than 8 must be supervised by someone 12 or older. The addition is intended to rectify problems staff has had with some children being left to supervise their younger siblings.

The library is soliciting public feedback on the new policy starting Jan. 6 and running until March 2. Opinions can be submitted in person at board meetings Jan. 21 and Feb. 18 or by emailing [email protected]

“Probably the largest growth has been in the elementary-age kids, and that is part of the reason we are looking at proposing and putting out this policy change for public comment,” Zumel said. “We just want to make sure that we can strengthen safety at those times.”


Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide, https://www.jhnewsandguide.com

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