Kids Queue Up for 'LA's BEST'

Popular after-school program keeps students in class, out of trouble, and having fun

For eight-year-old Samuel Lafa, it's a waiting game. Standing to one side on the playground at Logan Street School, with a basketball under his arm, he finds the after-school program known as LA's BEST is just out of reach to him.

"Samuel has been on the waiting list for a few months," says Martha Flores, LA's BEST site coordinator at the Los Angeles school, "but we can only take 238 children in the program here, and we've got 70 on the waiting list."

Former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley must be both frowning and smiling. In l988 he wanted 100,000 idle LA schoolchildren from ages 5 to 12 to be involved in activities after school, not hanging around or becoming gangster wannabes.

Nine years later, his innovative LA's BEST ( Better Educated Students for Tomorrow) program has bloomed into a national after-school model for low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. About 34,500 children have gone through the program.

It's the kind of activity that President Clinton wants to see at more schools around the nation. The Carnegie Corporation praises it. UCLA's Center for the Study of Evaluation says the program makes children like school, improves their grades, decreases school crime, and eases parents' worries about the lure of gangs and drugs.

More than 180 other cities have expressed interest in the program. San Diego and Sacramento are close to launching their own versions.

But burgeoning success has an unexpected flip side: waiting lists at 10 of the 24 elementary schools that have adopted LA's BEST. "It's a cool program," says Samuel, who has friends in the program. "It has a lot of sports and trips, and you can meet people from different cultures."

LA's BEST community board of directors is split over the issue of growth. Grow too big, say some members, and the quality will diminish. Others want expansion to meet the needs of children and end the waiting lists. "I'm inclined to think we can control the quality if we get the right people," says Carla Sanger, president and CEO of the program.

A 'cool' program

What has kept LA's BEST "cool," from a child's perspective, is a host of activities that continually engage children, along with a daily routine, and trained leadership and volunteers at each school site.

"These kids vote with their feet," Ms. Sanger says. "If they didn't like what was going on, they wouldn't be here. One parent told me that before this program, her child had a chip on his shoulder, and now he doesn't have a chip. We are in the business of knocking off those chips."

LA's BEST board of directors and staff, using a combination of public and private funds, provide each school with a generous budget averaging about $125,000 a year. A site coordinator and the school principal hire on-site staff, design a program with input from LA'S BEST program director, and encourage parental involvement.

Every afternoon, each child does homework for an hour (with tutoring if needed) and has a snack. After that, depending on the school, activities include dance, sports, arts and crafts, music, computer instruction, math and science projects, and reading. Hundreds of volunteers help out.

Weekend activities have included trips to Disneyland, ballet performances, baseball games, the California Museum of Science and Technology, and participation in the half-time show at the Super Bowl in 1993.

"As much as everybody likes to hear about the cognitive realm, such as science and math clubs," says Sanger, "we spend a lot of time in performing and visual arts, because our regular staff see children so differently after school, and their talents are expressed in so many areas."

More than a dozen events in the program bring children together from all over the city, mixing youths from various gang territories. But these events have yet to lead to any trouble. "We could have maybe 40 gangs represented through families, brothers, cousins at an event," Sanger says. "They check each other out, but they leave all the gang stuff at the door."

New perspectives

The UCLA study concluded that many children learn new perspectives as a result of the program. Children "showed more interest in wanting to perform activities new to them (make a movie, write or act in a play, compete in a variety of sports) rather than watch someone else's participation in these activities," the study says.

Ms. Flores became involved in the program at Logan school as a volunteer and eventually became the site coordinator.

"I started with the program in the beginning because my daughter was at school," she says. "When some of the kids first start, they say they just want to go to Grandma's after school. But I force them to come, and now they like it so much they tell their parents to pick them up really late."

Behind the success of LA's BEST is an activist community board. Primary funding came from the city's Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) with other support from corporate donors and the Los Angeles Unified School District. "Up to now we have been about 75 percent government-funded," says Sanger.

CRA funding is scheduled to end after 1998. Scenarios to keep LA's BEST running include providing staff consulting to other cities for fees, obtaining major support from the city council, and a possible renewal of CRA funds.

LA Mayor Richard Riordan enthusiastically supports the program. "We've squandered our educational resources so badly," he says, "that if you could ever get control of the school budgets and get the money down to the schools, [they] would have enough money to extend the school day for these types of programs."

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