06/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

After School Not An Afterthought

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) is holding a hearing today on the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and meeting the needs of the whole student. One key issue pertains to the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, essential legislation that promotes the development of the whole child through funding of after school programs throughout the country such as the LA's BEST After School Enrichment Program in Los Angeles.

LA's BEST, in operation since 1988, daily serves 28,000 elementary students with the greatest needs and fewest resources in the city. LA's BEST has been a privileged partner in the implementation of 21st Century grants and has more longitudinal, independently evaluated results than any program of its kind in the country. LA's BEST students, compared to non-LA's BEST students, are 20% less likely to drop out of high school and 30% less likely to commit juvenile crime over time (UCLA CRESST, Dr. Denise Huang). We believe that after school programs are not "nice to have" additions to public education; they are essential to reconnecting our neighborhoods to schools and teeing up kids for success and life-long learning.

If you believe that our ability to learn has deep roots in relationships, both personal and cognitive, then you must value the importance of 21st Century grants. By design, these grants promote collaborations among community-based organizations, community providers and public schools. Community involvement in school districts has increased exponentially because of this landmark legislation and its vision of finding strengths in individual neighborhoods. At LA's BEST, we hire our staff from the neighborhoods where we operate our programs and believe that providing kids with professionals who are like them, who can easily, truly, fully know them is hugely beneficial.

Staff from the community often better understand and are able to anticipate the behavior of kids within their own environment. These staff support the growth and understanding of abstract concepts essential to intellectual development by helping kids connect abstractions to their own life experiences. They enable success and help kids care and be excited about learning. 21st Century Community Learning Center grants encourage after school staff across the country to nurture kids' dispositions to become more inventive, recognize patterns, and make meaning that connects to individual realities; to become more available to learn in the regular school day and better able to join a workplace that is moving from knowledge-based to concept-based.

The pivotal importance of community-based staff is chronically underestimated or completely missing in policy circles. And worse, current and proposed policies can actually undermine the formation of such important adult-student relationships during after school hours, one of the few spaces left where such relationships can be readily established.

There is a distorted underside to the argument for turning the 21st CLCC dollars into a new extended day program focused on academic remediation for students. I have led after school programs since 1973, and in my professional opinion, there is a danger to using after school programs as repair shops for what the regular educational system hasn't maintained or has broken, and using a 1940s repair manual to do so. More time for learning is important, but the additional time needs to include community partners. If Congress chooses to invest in other extended school day models, it is essential to take what we know works in after school programs like LA's BEST and apply those lessons; we should not presume that quality can be predicted only from school-like settings.

21st Century Community Learning Center funding would benefit from two major changes: first, it should allow grantees to renew grants when they have demonstrated results; and second, it should allow grantees to run summer programs, especially in a climate where parks and recreation programs and summer school have been the first to go ? when all the research shows significant lost ground when kids are away from educational settings over the summer months.

All kids need a safe place to be after school with something meaningful to do and caring adults to energize and motivate learning. I welcome and encourage anyone to visit an LA's BEST after school program and see for themselves why I have justifiable pride in the capacity of our staff to engage students, awaken their intellects and be as fresh and exciting as our major competition - the streets.