On Halloween this year a few dozen kids — with proud families in tow, watching from the sidewalk — used costumes as currency on people’s front porches. They traded “Trick or Treat!” for small bags of M&Ms or peanut butter cups, if they were lucky. As the day got darker, our bowl of candy diminishing, the costumes got a little spookier. Princesses and Pokemon turned to gargoyles and ghosts. But, I’ll tell you what: I was never scared of them. Trick or treat — regardless, they’re kids, right?
But I hear about a certain 32 kids all the time, now. Thirty-two local kids are a threat. Thirty-two kids are a problem. Thirty-two kids are “terrorizing” our city, stealing cars and committing crime. On blogs, in the media and community meetings across the city, I hear talk of a revolving door: 32 kids in and out of the justice system. And there is a level of anger and fear in the community that I have rarely seen.
I don’t in any way intend to excuse these kids’ actions, nor dismiss the value of people working on this issue, but I feel there is a more significant number that is ignored by the focus on these 32 kids: 5,000.
I’ve been the Madison Out-of-School Time coordinator for about a year now, and while I don’t purport to speak on behalf of anyone, but myself, I’ve gained a lot of insights through this position. I’ve learned that 5,000 kids in Madison don’t have access to Out-of-School Time opportunities, primarily because they can’t afford them or the programs in their neighborhoods are already at capacity. Those are 5,000 primarily low-income elementary-aged kids who get home to doors that don’t revolve at all, doors that are closed. They don’t have places to go after-school and engage in meaningful, structured activities, with adults who care about them while their families are still at work.
Doesn’t that problem deserve some attention too? Isn’t that a door that we should collectively work to open? Wouldn’t our community, including the 32, all benefit from more opportunities for kids?
But the spectacle of the 32 buries the 5,000, and the consequences of this disproportionate focus are not borne just by idle kids in neighborhoods all across Madison. They are borne by our economy, our families, and our future community. What is the impact of 5,000 kids and their families not having access to opportunities to learn new skills, grow, play, and be nurtured by people who love them? What is that impact over a decade or two?
Maybe this is predictable. Scale matters, and there’s a solution to the 32 kids who are the problem. When the problem, however, is a system that distributes opportunity along lines of race and class, it’s easier to throw our hands up — to dismiss our collective responsibility under the weight of impossibility.
But what if we were able to catalyze the energy, the passion, the anger that our community feels and turn that to solutions for the 5,000 kids who don’t have opportunities when they get home from school? Turn it to volunteering, fundraising, working for policy change, advocating on behalf of youth and families, creating places where kids can go? Surely that matters. Surely our community can come together to open doors for 5,000 kids.
Opportunities matter. By sixth grade, middle-income kids have already experienced 6,000 more hours of structured learning activities after school compared to their lower-income peers. And these 6,000 hours have an impact on everything, from academic achievement, to incarceration rates, to future employment. This, in fact, is the front door, the reframe from "kid as problem" to "kid as possibility," and the door that’s currently closed for 5,000 kids.
Nathan Beck has worked in Out-of-School Time for over a decade in Madison, and is currently the Madison Out-of-School Time coordinator.