05/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Best of L.A. in Action

Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write or say:

I just participated in my first drum line.

Here's another one:

I also took my first hip-hop lesson.

I wasn't very good at either, but I had a couple dozen elementary school children enthusiastically cheering me on. I was the guest of 240 young students at Grape Street School in South Central Los Angeles, who are part of LA's Best, a non-profit I've had the privilege of working with for some time.

My kids went to L.A.'s best (at least the priciest) private schools in Los Angeles, but I had never seen anything like the after school programs at Grape Street. This school is one of 180 elementary schools serving 28,000 students in Los Angeles that benefits from from LA's BEST and its after-school programs.

I am so grateful that with our state's projected multi-billion-dollar deficit, the 22-year-old LA's Best not only survives, but thrives. It has to. One statistical reason is the return on investment in after school by keeping many kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks in school and out of crime. LA's BEST has tracked our kids compared to non-LA's BEST kids over time. They found there are 20% less drop outs and the kids are 30% less involved in crime.

And, the correlation between dropouts and incarceration is greater than the correlation between smoking and lung cancer.

One element that really struck me was the young people who work with the children at the after school programs. The kids go to school all day, do homework for an hour and then start the after-school programs. That's a long day. Yet the young staffers -- not necessarily accredited teachers who have already worked a whole day, but young energetic experts in subjects from drum playing to hip-hop to crafts -- are just amazing.

I know there's some controversy about having regular teachers be the after-school helpers, too. From what I saw, the system is working great with the energy, enthusiasm and dedication of an expert team of hundreds of people who supplement and complement the work the teachers do all day long.

The children I met are full of hope and optimism, and their self-esteem and confidence rightfully zoomed with every special task they took on. These are kids with great needs and few resources. I thank goodness for the after-school staff who are making a difference in so many lives in our own community.

L.A. is the best, and LA's BEST is making it better.