Carla Sanger runs an outstanding after-school program called LA’s Best. It serves nearly 30,000 students after school in Los Angeles. I invited her to explain why she has dedicated 25 years to this program and why she believes in it. Here is her response:

My biggest legacy from my father as principal of the largest elementary school in Baltimore in the 50’s (over 2,000 students) was this—How we learn, especially as children, matters.   I have been directing after school enrichment programs since 1973 when, as a supervisor of day care services for the State of New Jersey, I opened Mi Hogar, a nationally recognized after school program for kids 5-14.   It is wonderful to see how after school programs have become a sufficiently significant issue in efforts for reform of public education and some results of the effectiveness of high quality after school programs are both profound and unambiguous.

Dewey’s claim one hundred years ago that thinking follows interest has evidence in new research.   Today, there is more evidence than ever from neuroscience research into how children learn and acquire knowledge in and out of formal educational settings.   For example, Stumm and Chamorro-Premuzic (2011), state that interest and curiosity are the basis for motivating the “Hungry Mind”  The more a student exhibits curiosity which is based in human interest, the more a child can become engaged1

Educators understand that engagement is a necessary condition for deep learning.  Curiosity and interest open the door, and once that door is opened a student is engaged.  Hands-on experiential learning activities that allow a student to learn more about things that matter to him/her are key to ensuring that enjoyable and deep learning occurs.  For years this has been the primary vision of high quality, community-involved programs during and after school that respond to the whole child through a balance of education, enrichment, recreation and nutrition activities.

Today, with so many schools and districts forced to focus myopically on boosting test scores as a proxy for academic achievement, after school programs have come to be seen as yet another means to achieve that end.  Increasing numbers of after school programs do this by using the majority of hours in a child’s out of school time program focused on cognitive development at best, rote remediation at worst.  Many teachers would be first to agree that these after school programs are often the only space and time students have to discover and pursue interests, build community, and connect meaningfully with adults from their community.  Some of the best examples of this after school programming responding to individual interests can be found in the country’s most well-known private schools. 

“Time To Succeed” is a new initiative driven by the National Center on Time and Learning (NCTL), a non profit Boston research firm.  A wide coalition has been formed to restructure the school day to increase after school programs that focus on academics with the message that higher achievement is highly correlated with expanded learning time.  Time to Succeed model programs tout “injecting” art, music, and enrichment into academic activities.  In reality, within academically focused after school programs, community-staffed enrichment activities are often eliminated or not offered because of a lack of time or funding in these models.    The NCTL leaders who state that they are educators and not after school providers seem unaware that there are many educators in after school programs with a mission to respond to the whole child.

Time to Suceed has the opportunity to provide some important research for all K-12 educators.  Is it that kids aren’t learning because 9-3 is not enough time or is it because students are not sufficiently engaged in 9-3 lessons?     

Chris Gabrieli, chair of NCTL was quoted in the August 5th 2012 New York Times to have said in reference to the critical academic subjects that after school should prioritize, “The more time you spend practicing or preparing to do something the better you get at it.”    Some educators and researchers would say that is only true if you are engaged and like what you are doing as evidenced by the flat educational outcomes of the last decade.  What will be the longitudinal results in terms of educational attainment  for a critical mass of students in public education who have more time “on task” in hours beyond the school day?    How important is community involvement in the model of critical subject delivery during and after school?   

Education has been, is and always will be personal.  Children and families need choices  in after school models as they do in regular school day programs.  The response to Time to Succeed must not be at the expense of other after school program delivery models that emphasize the whole child, community engagement, and as much time for social, emotional, physical and intellectual activities and play as catching up on academics missed in the regular school day. 

This focus on critical subject time after school might  help some students excel in the regular school day but deprive others of activities to express their interests, curiosities, and fears from which to build engagement and thinking.  Robert Halpern from the Erikson Institute for Graduate Study said, “While after school programs certainly have a place in helping children come to enjoy the meaning in reading and writing, it is not their role – nor is it in their interest-to commit themselves to fostering academic achievement in its narrow sense.  When they do, it tends to distort their activities which then becomes more like the worst of what happens in the classrooms rather than the best.”2

LA’s BEST is one community based youth development after school program that has balanced education, recreation and enrichment activities with community educators for 25 years.  LA’s BEST has longitudinal research to show that over time kids in LA’s BEST compared with students not in the program from the same schools are 30% less involved in crime and 20% less likely to drop out. 

The programs that produce these results are far from “a thing of the past” because they have less accountability than more academically oriented approaches.   Rather they are as critical for some students to succeed as any programs that focus primarily on academic achievement.   And whether the regular school day or after school program prioritizes academic activities or children’s interests—real success will be correlated most with how engaged the students become in what matters most—how they are learning.   

1 Sophie von Stumm, Benedikt Hell, and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic(2011) The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, pp;l 574-577

2Robert Halpern, A Different Kind of Child Development Institution: The History of After-School Programs for Low Income Children, Teachers College Record Volume 104, Number 2, March 2002, p204  Copyright by Teachers College, Colombia University 0161-4681