Corrected: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect number of children served by LA’s BEST. The program serves 28,000 children.
When the final bell rings here at Kingsley Elementary School, half its 500 students leave, many joining the estimated one-quarter of all children across California who take care of themselves after school.
For those at Kingsley that stay on campus, half, though supervised, must occupy themselves while they remain on school grounds. But the 100 or so others take part in a highly regarded after-school program that combines homework help, academic enrichment, and recreation with a snack.
Designed by LA’s BEST—for Better Educated Students for Tomorrow—the country’s largest after-school organization partnered with a school district, that “three and a half beats” curriculum has shown to be effective in improving student performance for disadvantaged students throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District, LAUSD, for more than two decades.
California provides $550 million annually to support after-school programs like LA’s BEST that serve students from low-income families. As California grapples with a looming $25 billion deficit, state leaders may look to that funding as a place to make cuts, leaving many children like those at Kingsley and other Title I schools without a place to go at the end of the school day.
Twenty-three years ago, LA’s BEST President Carla Sanger worked with city and school leaders to craft an elementary school program that would not only keep children off the streets, but also provide experiences that, while educational and enriching, did not resemble the traditional school day. Today, LA’s BEST serves 28,000 students at 180 school sites throughout LAUSD, a majority of the after-school programs provided through the district’s out-of-school-time branch, Beyond the Bell.
“LA’s BEST is not ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic,'; eight hours of the same old, same old,” said Alvaro Cortes, an assistant district superintendent and the director of Beyond the Bell. “Instead, the same content is addressed in a different manner—skills learned in the day, with a different dress on. Good after-school programs do that: help kids make connections, enhance the skills [and] standards learned during the core day, and give opportunities to make sense of what was taught.”
The program has a solid track record. Several longitudinal studies from the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, or CRESST, at the University of California, Los Angeles, have shown LA’s BEST has long-term positive effects on participants: Attendance rates, academic performance, and self-esteem all improved. The research shows that children who attend the program are less likely to drop out of high school or to engage in criminal activities later in life.
LA’s BEST has also attracted attention from state and national after-school leaders, who have lauded what they consider to be a dynamic model that adheres to a consistent formula at all sites yet allows individual ones the freedom to tailor curricula to meet the needs and interests of their students and staff members.
On a recent afternoon at Kingsley Elementary, a class of 2nd and 3rd graders worked on abstract paintings with an LA’s BEST artist-in-residence, while a group of 4th and 5th graders learned Skillastics, a component of LA’s BEST healthy-lifestyles and fitness program. Later, students in the Celebrate Science Program worked on science projects to present at a local (and potentially regional and state) competition.
Kingsley and 162 other LA’s BEST sites are able to provide such curricula with significant funding from the state’s After School and Education Safety program.
As California struggles to reduce a $25 billion budget deficit, it continues to set aside $550 million of earmarked funding for after-school programs each year.
The After School and Education Safety Program provides grants for after-school programs at schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students. It supports 4,000 such sites statewide.
In Los Angeles County alone, the program contributed to the growth of 1,300 new sites in recent years. While there have been no official proposals so far to reduce the after-school funding, there have been conversations about such a step, according to a state education department official.
Under the requirements of the program, sites must match at least one-third of their grants, which average $112,500 for K-5 sites and $150,000 for K-8 sites. That has been a challenge for some sites, given the tough economy and a lack of strong relationships with the private sector, after-school leaders say.
The federal government also provides grants to after-school programs, but schools can apply for those grants only after they have used California’s after-school funding. One state after-school leader estimates that 90 percent of the programs would have a hard time surviving if significant cuts to the state funding were made.
Still, new schools continue to apply for the grants. Amended enrollment numbers at smaller schools left some state funding for new applications this past year. In Los Angeles County, 400 schools were identified as potential qualifiers and encouraged to apply. So far, the education department estimates 360 new applications have been submitted statewide.
After-school leaders say they remain hopeful about the future of those programs in California, given that new state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson led efforts to expand state funding for them when he was a state senator, and that he has a positive relationship with new Gov. Jerry Brown.
In 2002, California voters passed Proposition 49, a ballot initiative to increase and earmark funding for after-school programming that led to the creation of that program. Since the 2006-07 school year, the state has spent $550 million annually on grants for after-school programs at schools where at least half the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. To date, those grants support 4,000 sites throughout California.
Jodi Grant, the executive director of the Afterschool Alliance, a Washington-based group that advocates national support for after-school programs, said California is the only state with a dedicated funding stream solely for after-school programs, a commitment she hopes others will notice, even in a tough economy.
“We need to get more policymakers and the public to understand that quality after-school programs are helping to provide children and youth with opportunities that will teach them the skills they need to be the successful workforce of the future,” Ms. Grant said.
State funding for California’s after-school programs can be lowered only by a public vote, a process more challenging than decreasing general school funding. Chuck Nichols, an administrator with the California education department, said he has heard conversations about re-examining after-school funding, but there are no plans to put the matter before voters in 2011-12.
Still, after-school programs in California are hurting, given reductions in federal and city funding, as well as private-sector donations and support. LA’s BEST estimates it has lost $3.5 million from those sources over the past three years, losses that have meant cuts in activities and field trips, among other areas.
Debe Loxton, its chief operating officer, says losing funding, while challenging, means staff members need to think creatively to tap unused resources and new opportunities, and try as hard as possible to minimize cuts in program quality.
That may be easier for LA’s BEST than for many other after-school programs, given relationships the organization has built in the public and private sectors. After-school leaders say those ties have been instrumental in the program’s growth and sustainability.
In addition to its partnership with the 678,000-student LAUSD, the program has received support from the City of Los Angeles (its offices are housed in City Hall) and considerable outside donations and resources. Last year, private-sector contributions averaged some $2.7 million, support that has been used to provide special programs—like Young Authors, underwritten by the Target Corp., in which children make their own books.
To help children relate more to their mentors, most of LA’s BEST’s 2,100 instructional-staff members come from the neighborhoods where the sites are located. They report to site coordinators, who work with program coaches/supervisors and regional directors, as well as classroom teachers, to implement the programs.
Training is ongoing. Through training with the three and a half beats curriculum, instructors learn how to help their elementary charges with homework at each grade level and to use creative activities like hands-on science projects to bolster the academic skills students are taught during the school day. Depending on their own interests, or those of their students, staff members can pursue additional training to introduce special programming.
LA’s BEST aims to meet as many of individualized interests as possible by continuously offering and developing new programs, as well as hosting a number of events, such as sports leagues and dance-and-drill team showcases citywide. Staff members also meet regularly with classroom teachers to discuss how to complement and align the standard after-school curriculum with school day fare.
“The structure of the school day doesn’t lend more time for exploration or for students to go deeper into something they’re interested in,” Ms. Loxton said. “There isn’t this page, at this time, or only 20 minutes of art today at LA’s BEST. More than anything, the program provides an opportunity for extended learning time for what kids want to explore.”
Site individualization and creative programming set LA’s BEST apart from other after-school programs, many staff members say, and its exploration opportunities expose many children to experiences they likely would not have otherwise.
Lorena Guzman, who attended the after-school program as a student in the 1990s and now works as a program coach, said experiences like the drill team, museum visits, and a science competition that led to NASA’s space camp in Alabama have had a lasting impact on her life. Ms. Guzman, who calls herself a “product of LA’s BEST,” said those opportunities, and the relationships she built with adult mentors, were what influenced her to come back to work at the program as an adult.
Guille Pulido, a 23-year LA’s BEST employee who serves as a program specialist, said those outside opportunities can often be life-changing for children.
She took a group of students on a field trip to the beach in Malibu last year, an hour and a half and some 50 miles away from their San Fernando Valley neighborhood—the first time the children had seen the ocean, she said.
“These kids live in apartment communities with patios and attend schools full of cement. There is no grass to play on,” Ms. Pulido said. LA’s BEST “is a haven for children who come from broken homes with little access outside their communities.”
Many children haven’t had access to such opportunities. Although 19 percent of California’s K-12 students are in after-school programs, another 36 percent would be in a program if offered, according to the Afterschool Alliance. Those numbers are similar to national percentages.
LA’s BEST and other after-school providers are unable to meet the needs of many underprivileged students who might benefit from an after-school program, said Mary Jo Ginty, the state’s after-school regional lead for the area that covers Los Angeles County.
Not all schools with low-income students have been able to get state money. In the last round of funding, 1,900 schools statewide were turned down for grants.
These grants provide $7.50 per student, per day, which does not cover the total costs for operating an after-school program, according to Ms. Ginty. Consequently, after-school programs must go outside for additional support.
State and federal after-school grants set enrollment caps of 84 for K-5 sites and 112 for K-8 sites, regardless of school size. That means waiting lists at most schools, particularly at large ones, including most LA’s BEST sites.
To increase student numbers at state-financed sites, after-school programs must use additional funding sources, while maintaining a 1-to-20 staff-student ratio to adhere to grant requirements.
By next school year, the 100 Kingsley students who stay after school but are not enrolled in LA’s BEST may join some 60,000 of their peers in LAUSD in losing their after-school supervision, as the district contemplates cutting the $7.4 million used to pay for the program to help combat its $408 million deficit. LA’s BEST sites, and other state-funded sites in the district, will be unable to absorb a majority of those children, leaving many with no place to go after school.
But Ms. Sanger remains optimistic about the future of LA’s BEST and other after-school programs in the state, regardless the condition of the economy. She said she is working with the LAUSD to start programs at seven new schools next year, though state funding has stalled.
“I can’t imagine after-school going out of business. We may have to reduce the numbers or make some other changes, but there are too many parents, employees, and individuals at stake to slice these programs out of existence,” she said. “After-school is a cause that’s important. … It is not a sidebar program.”
Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as After-School Program Offers Enrichment to At-Risk Pupils