In the large cafeteria at Oxnard's Lemonwood School, 10 or so children squealed as they played table soccer.
"We won again," an excited Maria Mendez shouted as she pulled the handrails of the soccer table.
In another corner, 34-year-old Rosa Villa told fifth-grader Veronica Arenas that she needed to shorten the sentences in her homework. "OK, read it now and let's hear how it sounds," Villa said. "You need to write short sentences; otherwise they don't sound right."
Villa is one of several Oxnard residents who have developed a pilot program to allow children ages 6 to 12 to remain at school for supervised play or homework until 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
The project allows children attending or living near Lemonwood School in north Oxnard to remain there until their parents get home.
The program, which began Monday, is the result of a yearlong effort by County Supervisor John K. Flynn, business owners and residents who worry that unsupervised children are at risk of joining gangs and getting into other kinds of trouble.
"We are thrilled that we finally have the program going," Flynn said. "The parents are excited, the children are excited and we are excited because this is the only way to keep our kids away from street trouble."
Administered by the Boys & Girls Club of Oxnard, the program requires that parents fill out a form that automatically makes the child a member of the club.
As of Tuesday, more than 100 children had registered for the free program, said Villa, program director.
"We are not going to say no to anyone," she said. "We hope every child in the school will be able to participate."
But Villa said it is impossible to have all 770 children at Lemonwood attend the program on a given day. She does not expect the same group of children every day.
"Some parents work part time, so the days when they don't work, they probably will have their children home," Villa said.
When classes end at 2:30 p.m., the children gather at the school cafeteria and do homework for the next hour.
As they solve math problems and write essays, they are assisted by two senior citizens, two Oxnard College students, two high school students and Villa, a Boys & Girls Club employee.
The senior citizens and high school students are not paid, but the college students receive hourly pay from the program and their school.
"It warms my heart to see them wanting to learn," said 81-year old Helen Kelly, a retired teacher and now a volunteer. "They are so zesty, full of energy. It's exciting to watch them."
After they finish their homework, the children eat donated snacks, then may play Ping-Pong, chess, cards, Monopoly and other games.
Youngsters who enjoy sports can go to the playground, just outside the cafeteria, for football, soccer and other games.
"I love it here," 9-year-old Veronica Arenas said. "If I went home, I would watch TV and be bored."
Like many other children at Lemonwood, Veronica and her 8-year-old brother normally stay with relatives and wait for their mother to get home from work about 6 p.m., Veronica said.
"It's much more fun to stay here and play with my friends," she said.
Flynn said he and the group of citywide volunteers who developed the program picked Lemonwood because many parents in the area had sought help in preventing youngsters from joining gangs.
He said the program was first envisioned in June, 1993, during a community meeting televised from the Boys & Girls Club in Oxnard.
Soliciting businesses and nonprofit groups for help, organizers raised $27,000, enough to implement the same program at Driffill School in Oxnard by the end of October.
"The magic was to see people going out of their way so they could bring forth that same magic to the lives of so many children in our city," said Richard Figueroa, an Oxnard physician who helped develop the program.
Figueroa, who grew up in Oxnard, said he wants to give back to the community what he received.
"As a child, I was fortunate to grow up during a time when life was simple and schools provided after-school programs," he said. "It's been disheartening to see all those activities for children dwindle through the years."