Marites Agag waited eight months to enroll her 6-year-old son into an after-school program.

The single mother, who works full time at the Hawaii Department of Education, scrambled to juggle her job and take care of her only child. Sometimes she would ask her boss if she could drop her son, Martin, off with her mother 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 her that her son could start coming the next month.

“I was so relieved and grateful that he finally got a spot,” Agag said.

Mari Tes Ugag's 6-year-old son has been enrolled into the A+ Program since March.
Marites Agag’s 6-year-old son has been enrolled into the A+ Program since March. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2022

Agag’s son was one of the more than 1,200 elementary schoolchildren waitlisted for the A+ Program statewide, underscoring the need for working families to have access to quality after-school care.

The program started in 1989 as an initiative to reduce the number of young children left home alone while their parents were at work or school. But it has become increasingly hard to get a spot due to Covid-19 restrictions and staffing shortages.

That may change after the state Department of Human Services distributed nearly $80 million in federal relief funds last year to support and increase capacity for child care providers, including the A+ Program.

The goal is to provide after-school supervision in a safe environment, reduce the number of children home alone, enhance the relationship between home and school and improve children’s physical fitness.

Some of the program’s providers plan to use the funds to increase wages and train more staff.

The state Department of Education has relied on the private providers to run the program, which serves about 15,600 public school students. Of the 200 program sites, 44 are operated by the DOE and 149 by private provider-run sites, according to the department.

A+ Program providers are trying to boost staff to allow more students to enroll.
A+ Program providers are trying to boost staff to allow more students to enroll. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2022

The A+ Program is open for enrollment for the upcoming school year, and this time parents can register their kids online.

Monthly enrollment is currently $120 per child, but it will increase to $200 by the upcoming school year.

YMCA of Honolulu is one of the program providers that manages about 58 sites.

So far, about 1,100 families have registered online for the program, 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 kids to have these safe spaces and opportunities to develop relationship skills in the program as well as supporting their mental wellness,” Ontai said.

Student capacity depends on the number of staff. The ratio is one staff member per 20 students, according the program’s parent handbook. 

In 2019, the YMCA of Honolulu had 390 staff and more than 6,700 students. The number of employees declined to 218 serving nearly 3,200 in 2021. This school year, 229 staff are serving more than 2,600 students. The program was closed for much of 2020 due to Covid-related precautions.

Program providers are trying to aggressively recruit staff in order to boost 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.

A part-time A+ group leader can earn between $13.50 and $14.50 per hour, and a part-time site director can make up to $17 per hour.

“If our summer staff work for seven or more weeks and 15 hours or more per week this summer, they will receive the $300 bonus with an invite and opportunity to earn an additional bonus if they stay on and work in A+,” Ontai said.

A+ Program staffers help students with their homework.
A+ Program staffers help students with their homework. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2022

As the state is trying to bounce back from the pandemic, DOE data shows that students are still struggling in math and English.

The department has said that it will offer free summer school programs this year to help students catch up.

Diane Tabangay, executive director of youth development, said although the program is short-staffed, the staff are eager to help students succeed for the upcoming school year.

Part of the A+ program includes a homework period, she said.

“A lot of the activities have a game approach, but it does initially focus on skills that we know will help the children in school,” Tabangay said, adding that the staff will have the kids learn teamwork and problem solving, like applying math to cooking.

“We don’t want it to be another extension of school, we want to make it fun,” she continued.

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