Carla Sanger: 24 years of afterschool and still going strong

For almost a quarter century, LA’s BEST has depended upon its network of partners to provide high-quality academic and enrichment activities in elementary school neighborhoods most vulnerable to gangs, drugs and crime and at elementary schools with the lowest student test scores. The independent, nonprofit organization works in collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the mayor’s office, the city council and the private sector.

“This is no paper partnership,” said Carla Sanger, president and CEO of LA’s BEST, which currently serves 28,000 students in grades K-6 at 186 schools in Los Angeles. “Operating a program of this size requires a daily articulation of understanding. Everything depends on fluid communication.”

Sanger, a specialist in children’s education and advocacy for more than 40 years, first became acquainted with the value and utility of afterschool programming as supervisor of day-care services for the state of New Jersey in the mid-1970s.

While she embraced the idea of afterschool, Sanger — a policy specialist — took issue with some of the state-mandated requirements that “didn’t make sense” to her.

Carla Sanger headshot.
Carla Sanger, president and CEO of LA’s BEST. Photo: Rick Smith

“I saw poor families boxed out of participation because they had to prove they were poor,” she said.

“The required 1:14 staff-to-student ratio was too low, and the credentialing requirements for supervisors were higher than necessary to operate a quality program.

“I believed — and still believe — it is possible to serve more children with less money if you eliminate restrictive policies and encourage the local community and the day-school staff to become part of the afterschool partnership.”

Taking a “whole child” approach

Sanger brought those beliefs to a meeting in Los Angeles in 1988. Then-Mayor Tom Bradley invited 57 people to the table to figure out how the city could keep its children safe between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m.

The result — LA’s BEST — was piloted in 10 sites that first year. Hired to supervise and raise financial support for the program, Sanger set up training opportunities for her afterschool staff — many of whom did not have teaching credentials — and hired a public relations specialist.

“To be successful, we had to do a good job, and people needed to know about it,” she said.

LA’s BEST mix of academics, enrichment and recreation — a “whole child” approach to programming — is essential to that success and reflects Sanger’s passionate belief that if an afterschool experience “isn’t joyful, cool and fun,” it’s not fulfilling its potential.

“To be effective, these programs have to excite both kids and staff,” she said.

LA’s BEST core activities are divided into “three-and-a-half beats,” which provide structure for a program that otherwise is customized at each site to students’ needs and staff members’ interests and experience, says Sanger. The “beats” are:

  • Help with homework.
  • A learning activity designed to boost core academic skills.
  • An enrichment activity focused on “something that’s new and just plain fun.”
  • A nutritious snack (the final half-beat).

Over the years, special programs have been added to core offerings, based on documented results and popularity among participants and their families.

LA’s BEST also participates in regular, rigorous evaluations. A study by the University of California-Los Angeles confirmed that students who attend LA’s BEST in elementary school are more likely to be promoted to middle school, earn higher grades, have stronger math skills and demonstrate better preparation for standardized tests.

Keeping fresh and relevant

Carla Sanger sits at a desk.
Carla Sanger. Photo: Rick Smith

More recently, as a result of a growing concern about the impact of stress brought on by poverty, exposure to violence and family instability, Sanger and her staff developed and are testing a new curriculum, “Connecting for Success, A Guide for Building Healthy Afterschool Communities.”

Designed to help children “unpack the fear and anger” that can block their academic and social progress, “Connecting for Success” helps site leaders and staff learn how to connect emotionally with at-risk children, reduce their tolerance for violence, and expand learning about local and global issues.

The negative effects of exposure to trauma in childhood and adolescence are not unique to Los Angeles, of course. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to trauma has become a major public health concern, which can lead to decreased IQ and reading ability, lower grade-point average, increased school absence, and decreased graduation rates.

“This is edgy stuff,” Sanger said of the curriculum. “Some of our children have seen things children should never have to see. And they hold that turmoil in their bodies. The curriculum is an attempt to unlock that stress by processing their thoughts and feelings.”

The work is delicate and requires skill, structure and “lots of conversations,” says Sanger. But without intervention, children will continue to be “unavailable to learn.”

“There’s not enough time during the school day to work on this problem,” she said. “The afterschool hours give our kids the time and safety they need to talk about some of the things that are bothering them.”

A model that benefits all

At LA’s BEST, children are viewed as individuals to be developed, not problems to be solved. Which is why LA’s BEST will continue to operate as a “model with balance,” Sanger said.

“Recently, I saw a newspaper advertisement for a very expensive and exclusive new private school,” she said.

“The ad didn’t emphasize more academic time; it emphasized opportunities for experiential learning, art, music, sports and fitness and global education.

“We need that for all our children, not just for those whose families can afford it.”