Groups of boisterous children gather for roll call each weekday afternoon at the flagpoles of Pico Rivera elementary schools.
A supervisor clutching a clipboard checks off the names of the first- through fifth-graders, then the children are off, walking, skipping and jumping to after-school programs sponsored by the Pico Rivera Parks and Recreation Department.
Dubbed the "Walking Crew" by parks department staff, the program runs from about 3 to 6 p.m. at five city parks and one city playground.
Children spend one hour in the park, playing kickball, field hockey, softball and other games under supervision. Then they go into a recreation center where they are served a snack and engage in educational games, such as spelling bees, or watch children's movies. If there is any time left before their parents come to pick them up, the students do homework.
At $10 a week, the Walking Crew, one of a growing number of city-sponsored after-school programs in the Southeast area, is a godsend for working parents whose children might otherwise spend their afternoons at home alone watching television.
"They're very dependable people here," said Rosa Guevara, whose 7-year-old daughter, Kathy, has been with the Walking Crew since mid-September. "I put her in for a week to see how she would like it and she didn't want to leave."
On some days, police or fire department officials talk to the children about safety or the dangers of drug abuse. At Smith Park, parents can enroll their children in art or dance classes taught on weekday afternoons.
Like other cities that have recently started similar programs, including Santa Fe Springs, La Mirada, Whittier and La Habra, before- and after-school programs for children whose parents work have proved to be popular. Enrollment has quadrupled in the Pico Rivera program from about 40 children last year to about 160 this year, said Kimbre Dowd, a recreation supervisor. There is a waiting list at Rivera Park, and Dowd said some parents have had their children transferred to another school to assure a spot in the Walking Crew program.
"We were booming in registration until the quake hit," she said. "Things are starting to pick up again now."
One sunny afternoon, the Smith Park Walking Crew played a spirited game of field hockey, with boundaries marked in chalk on the grass outside the recreation center. A supervisor kept them under control with shrill beeps from a whistle when the ball went out of bounds or a team scored.
Later, they went inside to watch a movie, then settled in folding chairs around long tables to tackle the day's homework.
Better Than Staying Alone
Corrine Venegas enrolled her son Ceasar, 10, in the Walking Crew so he could take part in such activities. Before, Ceasar sometimes stayed with Venegas' sister after school, and sometimes stayed alone at home.
"I would rather he come here," Venegas said. "They have things that he can do with other kids . . . It's great."
Parents also approve of the Walking Crew because the children are carefully supervised.
Parents who enroll their children must fill out an emergency information card and provide names of people authorized to pick up their youngsters. Each is accounted for at the school each afternoon, and a parent must sign for his or her child at night.
Parents are asked to notify the recreation department if a child is absent from school, and Walking Crew supervisors do not leave the school grounds until all children are accounted for, Dowd said.
The security precautions may seem excessive, but Dowd said estranged parents or other relatives have tried to pick up children without permission. "In that case, we call the parent and see if it is OK to release the child," she said.
Example of Security
One afternoon, Liz Navarrete asked her boyfriend to pick up her son, Gabriel, 7. Navarrete told him he would have to show identification at the recreation center, but he did not believe her.
"He was really surprised. He thought they were going to put the searchlight on him," Navarrete said.
Before Gabriel joined the Walking Crew, his grandmother cared for him after school. But she decided to go back to work, and Navarrete checked into the program after Gabriel brought home a flyer about it.
"It's hard to find a sitter right after school," she said. "I'm really happy with the program."
Dowd said she is planning to expand the Walking Crew program to include kindergarten children next year.