Marites Agag waited eight months to enroll her 6-year-old son in an after-school program.
The single mother, who works full-time at the Hawaii Department of Education, has struggled to juggle work and care for her only child. Sometimes she would ask her boss if she could drop off her son, Martin, with his mother and then hurry back to work. Other times, the Kalihi resident would ask her immediate family if they could pick him up.
Finally, in February, Agag received a call from the After School Plus, or A+, program at Kapalama Elementary School to inform him that his son could start coming next month.
“I was so relieved and grateful that he finally got a spot,” Agag said.
Agag’s son was one of more than 1,200 elementary school children on the A+ program waitlist statewide, underscoring the need for working families to have access to care after quality school.
The program launched in 1989 as an initiative to reduce the number of young children left home alone while their parents are at work or at school. But it has become increasingly difficult to secure a place due to Covid-19 restrictions and staff shortages.
This may change after the State Department of Social Services distributes nearly $80 million in federal relief funds last year to support and increase the capacity of child care providers, including the A+ program.
The objective is to provide after-school care in a safe environment, reduce the number of children alone at home, improve the relationship between home and school and improve the physical condition of children.
Some of the program providers plan to use the funds to raise salaries and train more staff.
The state Department of Education relied on private providers to run the program, which serves approximately 15,600 public school students. Of the 200 sites in the program, 44 are managed by the DOE and 149 by sites managed by private providers, according to the department.
The A+ program is open for registration for the upcoming school year, and this time parents can register their children online.
Monthly subscription is currently $120 per child, but it increase to $200 by next school year.
The YMCA of Honolulu is one of the program providers that operates approximately 58 sites.
So far, about 1,100 families have registered for the program online, according to Lisa Ontai, vice president of marketing and mission advancement. Other providers include Kamaaina Kids, Maui YMCA, Dream Co., and Moiliili Community Center on Oahu.
“We see a great need for children to have these safe spaces and opportunities to develop relationship skills in the program as well as support their mental well-being,” Ontai said.
The student capacity depends on the number of employees. The ratio is one staff member for every 20 students, according to the program’s parent manual.
As of 2019, the YMCA of Honolulu had 390 employees and over 6,700 students. The number of employees has fallen to 218 serving nearly 3,200 in 2021. This school year, 229 employees are serving more than 2,600 students. The program was closed for much of 2020 due to Covid precautions.
Program providers are trying to aggressively recruit staff to increase student enrollment by working with colleges and offering hiring bonuses in the summer and fall, Ontai said.
She also said the hourly wage was adjusted as a recruiting strategy.
“If our summer staff works seven or more weeks and 15 or more hours per week this summer, they will receive the $300 bonus with an invite and the opportunity to earn an additional bonus if they stay and work A+” , Ontai said.
As the state tries to bounce back from the pandemic, DOE data shows that students still struggle in math and English.
The department said it will offer free summer programs this year to help students catch up.
Diane Tabangay, executive director of youth development, said that although the program is understaffed, staff are eager to help students succeed for the upcoming school year.
Part of the A+ curriculum includes a homework period, she said.
“A lot of the activities have a playful approach, but they initially focus on skills that we know will help children in school,” Tabangay said, adding that staff will ask children to learn the job of learning. teamwork and problem solving, like applying math to cooking.
“We don’t want it to be another extension of the school, we want it to be fun,” she continued.