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Thursday, March 28, 2002

After-school care centers seen as vital for kids

Facilities offer working parents peace of mind but lack of funding limits numbers


Staff writer

It's 4 p.m. and the children's eyes sparkle with excitement: It's snack time.

News photo
Keiko Katayama, a care worker at the privately run Minuma Elementary School Children Care Center, plays with children on a recent afternoon.

Colorfully assorted bins of cookies, chocolate bars and other snacks line a table at Minuma Elementary School Children Care Center in the city of Saitama.

Tuesday is the most exciting day of the week for the kids, because it's the day the center turns into a mock penny candy store. Each child is entitled to food worth 60 yen.

"How much is a cup of yogurt?" a girl asked, her hands already full of candy bars.

"Yogurt is a real bargain today. It's only 10 yen!" hollered Keiko Katayama, a 51-year-old staffer there.

Katayama then picks her own favorites and sits with the children. She faces two boys who have just had a fight. A skinny boy is tearful, while a chubby boy looks on.

"But you know, sometimes you are the one who bullies him," Katayama admonishes the skinny boy while munching on a cookie.

Katayama is more than an employee at the center, where 46 elementary schoolchildren are currently enrolled. Every afternoon from around 2 p.m., when the kids arrive right after school, to 6:30 p.m., she serves as their mom, buddy and caretaker.

At the center, children are free to engage in activities of their choice. Some go out to play in the school playground right across the street, while others do homework, often with the help of the staff there. Some read their favorite comics or play cards.

Institutions like this one at Minuma have long given the nation's working parents peace of mind. Many working moms and dads, faced with the need to have their school-age kids in the care of responsible, caring adults after school, have established after-school care centers nationwide.

Since the first one was set up in Osaka in 1948, the facilities, popularly known as "gakudo hoiku," -- literally, schoolchildren day-care center -- have sprouted up across the nation. They now number 11,830 and accommodate some 410,000 children, according to the nationwide association of care centers.

The Tokyo-based association has for decades lobbied the government to set up public-run care centers and increase subsidies for privately established ones.

Accordingly, subsidies paid out from government coffers have grown from some 117 million yen in 1976 to 5.9 billion yen in 2001, with the figure expected to reach 6.8 billion yen in fiscal 2002, which starts Monday.

But the subsidies are still far from adequate, argued Sanada, an official at the association's secretariat, noting that the 6.8 billion yen is only a fraction of the 450 billion yen the government forks out every year to subsidize nursery schools.

"For working parents, care centers for school-age children are just as important as preschool nurseries," Sanada said.

The biggest problem remains the shortage of care centers, Sanada noted, adding that the number is not catching up with the rapid increase in working mothers and single-parent families.

The association believes children at all elementary schools need a care center near their schools. Currently, the number of centers is about a half of the total number of schools in the country.

Many private facilities also have financial problems, and the Minuma center is no exception.

The center, established 24 years ago, opened in its current site about two years ago, after moving from one rented space to another. Before moving to the current two-story building adjacent to an elementary school, it used to cram about 30 children into an old rented house with only a six-mat room and a 4.5-mat room.

"That was not a humane environment for children to grow up in," Katayama recalled. "We didn't have room to move once we sat down. If a child got sick, there was no room to lie down, so the child had to lean against the wall."

The current facility is incredibly spacious in comparison, but the 120,000 yen monthly rent weighs heavily on the center's finances. It collects a monthly fee of 15,000 yen per child, which adds up to 6.3 million yen a year, and receives 5.6 million yen in public subsidies. But that's still not enough to cover the yearly expenses of some 14 million yen, Katayama said.

To make ends meet, the parents and staff have had to set aside time from their busy schedules to organize seven fundraisers, including flea markets, over the past year.

The association's Sanada added that many facilities are so cash-strapped that they have been unable to pay their employees decent wages.

A 1998 survey by the association has found that 90 percent of some 20,000 workers nationwide are part-timers, although many of them work hours akin to full-timers. A separate survey taken last year found that an average care worker's annual salary hovers around 1.8 million yen.

"For the children, these centers serve as substitutes to their homes," Sanada said. "Workers there have a very important job, and they are often the first ones to detect signs of crisis in the children's families, such as child abuse. But their work is so underappreciated."



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