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Learner Podcast

Episode 33: ExpandLA’s Work to Increase Access to Quality Out-of-School Time Programs for Youth

Author: Marcelle Hutchins

In this episode, the Annenberg Learner Podcast is joined by Maria “Lou” Calanche, the inaugural executive director of ExpandLA, an intermediary organization that supports, connects, and advocates for increased access to out-of-school time (OST) programs for children and youth in Greater Los Angeles. By both working directly with organizations to strengthen their capacity and addressing systemic issues like funding and contracting at the county and district level, ExpandLA is working to ensure that all youth can access quality local programs. 

(The interview has been edited for length and clarity) 

Nati Rodriguez [2:25] 

To get us started, could you tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got into this work? 

Lou Calanche [2:32] 

I think my interest in young people and systems change comes from growing up in Boyle Heights. I grew up in the Ramona Gardens community of Boyle Heights, which is the northernmost part of Boyle Heights, and it’s a very geographically isolated part of Boyle Heights surrounded by the 10 freeway, factories, and a railroad line. And growing up there, there were very few opportunities for young people. So, growing up, I knew that I was going to be involved in something that would bring different resources to the community, but that wasn’t my original trajectory. I studied political science, and I worked in politics, I worked for the city of LA for a council member and then went off to pursue a doctorate to teach. I wanted to teach political science at East L.A. College, and I was there for probably 10 years as a part-timer. And once I became a tenure track professor, I decided to go back to the neighborhood where I grew up, in Ramona Gardens and try to help young people. And so, it was more of a volunteer thing. And then I realized that things hadn’t changed too much since I was growing up, there still weren’t a lot of opportunities for young people. So, I started working with community residents to identify what their needs were, and the residents said they wanted more after-school programs for their kids; they wanted a library – they didn’t have a library close by; and more enrichment opportunities and academic support programs. And so, I told them, ‘You could do it, let’s work on figuring out how to make this happen.’ And they said, ‘Well, you have to be part of it, you have to help us.’ So, long story short, I left my teaching job to start Legacy LA. 

Nati Rodriguez [4:32] 

That’s amazing. And what were some of the program offerings that Legacy LA had for the community once it was up and running?  

Lou Calanche [4:40] 

When we started Legacy, the first program which was the flagship program was a youth leadership program, where we brought 10 kids to work with me because I was like the staff – I was an organization of one person. So, my goal was to start a leadership program in order to build community capacity where young people were involved in making their community better. That program took off and we were getting all these kids to become community leaders, but the problem was that a lot of them weren’t graduating from high school. And so, then we were like, ‘Oh, so we need programs to help kids graduate.’ We had about a higher than 60% high school dropout rate in Ramona Gardens. And as I mentioned, it’s a poor, under-resourced community; and things hadn’t changed, and kids were still struggling in school. So, we started an academic program, which we call the Student Success Program and we worked with these high school kids. And then we realized that when we would start working with them in 9th and 10th grade, they were already very far behind. So, we felt we needed a middle school program – so then we developed a middle school program. Then when things started getting better for these kids, they started getting into college, and we realized we would get them into college, and they would have such a hard time in college, so then we decided our program needed to be from sixth grade, all the way to college completion. And they would stay in the program until they finished college or got a job that they wanted or figured out some goals. So, our work focused on case managing kids, so kids would have a case manager for at least six years. And then along with that, there was a leadership program, art, and other programs that were part of the enrichment program after school. 

Nati Rodriguez [6:45] 

That’s amazing. That’s a lot of incredible work in a community and in response to what they wanted, which is fantastic – with somebody from their area. Which I think really validates the experience and brings a lot of expertise just from your being there and having lived there. So now transitioning to your new role as executive director for ExpandLACan you tell us about that work? And it’s a fairly new organization so would like to hear how it got started as well. 

Lou Calanche [7:21] 

For me, this is the natural progression of my work. At Legacy LA not only was I focused on supporting young people, but we started becoming very involved in advocating for young people. We realized that the city didn’t have a youth department, so our kids organized to ask for the first youth department in the City of LA and were able to get it in 2021. And I also learned that the nonprofit sector, especially those focused on youth, wasn’t seen as important as the role it does have. So, when I saw this opportunity with ExpandLA to focus on the out-of-school time sector or the expanded learning sector, which is like all our after-school providers, weekends, before school. I thought it was a great opportunity to start lifting up the sector. So, this is a great opportunity for me to continue the work that I care about.  

So, ExpandLA is an intermediary organization. So, we’re kind of like the middle organization with a goal of connecting the nonprofit sector with resources, building their capacity so that they can provide high quality services, and advocating on their behalf for more funding. This idea of an intermediary was started five years ago or more, with some research that was done with the Broad Foundation, and they saw that these large cities like Boston, New York, Chicago – other large cities across the country had intermediary organizations that were focused on the out-of-school time. So, they brought a group of folks together, along with the Mayor’s Fund because it got seeded with the Mayor’s Fund, and brought different providers to the table, including a lot of STEM providers to think about what an intermediary organization can do in Los Angeles. So, they visited other intermediaries across the country and had a lot of dialogue with other organizations across LA, and came up with this strategic plan for an organizationThen the pandemic hit and things slowed down a bit, and it shifted to immediate needs. So, there was some STEM programming for kids and some other opportunities. But after we started reopening schools and people started going back to work, there was a concerted effort to hire someone that could spin it off into its own nonprofit and start doing the work – and that was in 2021.  

We have this strategic plan that is based on three pillars: support, connect, and advocate. Our goal this year was to build a network of providers. So as of today, we have over 200 nonprofit after-school providers that are part of ExpandLA network, and our goal is to continue to build their capacity to provide resources like professional development. We’re focused on breaking down silos, sometimes you have organizations working in the same neighborhoods, but they’re all kind of just doing their thing. We’re working right now to try to increase the rates that these organizations get from LAUSD. There’s been a lot of investment in after-school so our goal is to have the after-school providers receive that investment from the state, so that they can pay better wages and retain staff, because a lot of after-school staff are part-time employees. So, there’s a lot of turnover. And to increase quality, we know that we need to pay more, and hopefully people will stay longer, and there’s better training for them. So, the long-term goal or the goal/mission of ExpandLA is to ensure that all kids in LA County have access to high-quality after-school programs. But that’s a little bit of the work that’s taken off in this last year, really trying to build a network and bring organizations together and lift up the sector. Just with the 200 plus organizations that are part of our network, we are an economic machine; we hire a lot of people in LA, but the sector isn’t seen as an important sector, not only for the workforce but also the safe spaces that we provide for young people after-school. And the opportunities for parents to work because they don’t have to worry about their kids being home alone. But also, the opportunities and doors that after-school programs open for kids – everybody can think about an after-school program they participated in that shaped their lives, so these programs are important. And if you think about it, kids spend more than two-thirds of their time outside of school. So, what they do during those hours is really important. So, we want to make sure that LA has amazing opportunities for young people and that can only happen if we’re supporting this sector. So that’s a little bit about what we do, but we’re just starting. There’s so much potential for ExpandLA 

Nati Rodriguez [14:15] 

It’s a little shocking that something like this didn’t already exist in LA because it’s such a huge place with lots of opportunity and lots of ways to connect with people. Annenberg Learner, one of our initiatives or strategic goals is to support that out-of-school time learning. So, I’m curious about what are some of the major barriers around accessing programs. You mentioned one that I hadn’t thought of – which is just like the staffing as well…but like availability, access awareness, cost, something else? 

Lou Calanche [14:55] 

One of the first things we did earlier this year was a survey. We released the report and the findings of the survey; we surveyed over 200 organizations, and we asked them ‘What are the barriers for you as a provider? And what are the barriers for young people?’ We also did listening sessions with providers across the county, we did them in all of the SPA areas from the Antelope Valley to Pomona to Long Beach. And then we also did youth listening sessions, the same thing across LA County. And what we heard was funding is a barrier. But one of the interesting things is that there are funds, but the way that funds are distributed by not necessarily philanthropy, but the government funding – a lot of organizations cannot access that funding. So, if you’re a smaller organization, you don’t really have the capacity to apply for, like say, an LAUSD grant. Because the process to apply is very difficult, and then you have to have certain types of insurance and things like that. So that’s one, just access to the funding, to apply for the funding. So, you have some amazing programs out there, small programs, and it’s very difficult to build them up and have more access for young people because of the contracting process. Additionally, the contracting of those organizations that do get those contracts, sometimes it’s a burden to get those contracts because you have to get reimbursed. So you don’t get a grant like in philanthropy – you get a grant, and you’ll get the whole thing all at once or you get it in chunks. But it’s up front funds. LAUSD, the city, the county department, the state, and all these government funds, there has been more investment and programs for young people, or more dollars to support these programs, but a lot of organizations will not apply because a lot of the times, you have to wait three months to get reimbursed. So, an organization has to have cash flow to be able to front three months of salaries in order to be able to apply for grants, so a lot of organizations just can’t do it. So, we’re trying to change the contracting infrastructure of these government entities. So, those are some things that were brought up, like, ‘I want to grow my organization. But there’s a lot of funding in the county or the city or LAUSD, but my organization can’t apply, we don’t have the capacity.’ So, that was brought up. And then also professional development for staff; a lot of organizations spend all their funds on staff, and providing these programs, and very few funds can be allocated for professional development. So, if we want to increase quality, we’ve got to do better training.  

Young people, when we asked them like, ‘What are the barriers?’ – they said transportation. Programs are spread across LA County, and then accessing those programs is an issue. Also, the hours that they’re open, as I mentioned some of the older students want these programs to stay open beyond six o’clock. They also want more social and emotional programs, especially after the pandemic they feel like they need more wellness, and there isn’t a lot of funding for those programs. But those are the things that they’re asking for. So, we’re trying to develop a plan for like, ‘How can we get say LA County to invest more dollars and our nonprofits so that those programs are readily available in communities?’ So, those are some of the top things that I think are fixable, but there has to be an organization like us focused on those barriers and obstacles so organizations can focus on their work. But we can focus on figuring out how to remove those obstacles that prevent either young people from accessing programs or for providers being able to provide more programs. 

Nati Rodriguez [19:33] 

Thank youAnd thinking on how success will be measured, or maybe three, five years down the line, what will that look like when some of these barriers are lifted, removed, lessoned? Are there enough seats for every student that wants out-of-school time learning? 

Lou Calanche [19:53] 

One of the issues and concerns that we’ve been like kind of thinking about is, ‘How do we measure success?’ So, we have this new organization, but how are we going to measure success? So, one of the problems that exist is that there’s very little knowledge or information as to how many young people participate in after-school programs in LA County. It hasn’t been something that’s been tracked; we’ve been trying to figure out how many organizations are out thereI tell you, we have over 200, probably closer to 250 that are part of our network, but we know there’s a lot more; there are small organizations or bigger organizations that are just not on our radar, and LA County is huge. So, we’ve been trying to figure out like, ‘Okay, how many organizations are out there doing this work?’ And then we have to figure out, like, ‘How many seats do they have? And how much more can they provide if they had more funding?’ But we’re trying to figure out a baseline right now, like what is currently available. So, none of that data exists. So, we are trying to figure out how do we start by developing the baseline informationLike, what’s, what’s happening now, so that in five years, we can say like, we made a difference. So, that’s one thing we’re trying to do to develop a baseline.  

But we are possibly going to work with UCLA to develop some sort of – we did an initial landscape assessment – but we’re like, ‘How can we get this baseline data?’ So, to answer your question, in five years, hopefully, we have the data to be able to show that this sector is making a difference. But my dream is that every single young person in LA County that wants to participate in an after-school program has access to an after-school program in their community, in their school, that these organizations are linked; they’re working together, we’re leveraging each other’s resources instead of working in silos. So, I’m hoping that kids know what’s available in their area, they know what’s available outside their area, their parents know where to go to access programs, that schools see the importance of after-school programs, and that there is continued funding for after school. The other thing we’re working on is trying to develop a workforce pipeline so that if you’re a community college student, you don’t just see an after-school program as: ‘Okay, I’m just going to work there because I can work three hours a day, and it works with my school schedule.’ That’s great, but we’re saying this could be a career for you. So how do we develop a pipeline, starting maybe even in high school, just like early childhood education has a program at community colleges where you get certified and then go work in that field;  we want something like that for expanded learning, that these become pipelines and for teaching;  you become a teacher after, or you can work in recreation center, you can work in a nonprofit, but that this becomes a professional type of endeavor, versus ‘I’m just going to work there because it works with my schedule.’ Instead, we want this to be like, ‘I want to work in an expanded learning or youth development. So, this job is just part of me growing and part of my professional development into my career.’ So those are different things that we know will lift up the quality of programs as well. So, there’s so much that can happen; but those are some of the things that in five years, if I’ve done my job, all those things would be moving already, and we’ll start seeing some real energy around the sector and possibilities. 

Nati Rodriguez [23:50] 

Love all the goals and I think they got the right person for this work. Next with lots of areas and I’m excited to see where ExpandLA goes in the next couple of years. If you have another minute, I have one more question that we like to ask our guests. What are you currently reading, watching, or listening to these days? 

Lou Calanche [24:16] 

So, I just started this book, it’s called Designing Your Life. It was recommended by another person who’s a coach, and he’s like, ‘Oh, you know, I’m sharing this with, you know, other folks.’ So, it’s written by a Stanford professor, and they have a class at Stanford from what this book is saying that’s called Designing Your Life. And it has four concrete areas that you can focus on, and the four are obviously work; and then love – and love doesn’t have to be romantic love, it could be kids, it could be siblings, it could be friends. But that’s a real important part of your life. So work, love, health, and fun. So if you take stock – I know, when I was at Legacy, that was probably the hardest thing I ever did was build a nonprofit from scratch, so my work was 100%, but fun was 10%I never saw my friends; love, I didn’t see my family as much. So, part of the reason for moving on to a different opportunity was needing more balance. So now I’m focusing on fun – I’m learning how to play piano. I’m focusing on love, trying to see my friends, trying to visit relatives who are out of state. So, those four pillars help you identify areas where you need to do a little more focus. I just started it, I’m on chapter two. But I keep recommending it to other folks. 

Nati Rodriguez [26:33] 

Thank you so much for sharing. Anything else we’d like to share with our Learner audience before we sign off 

Lou Calanche [26:39] 

There are so many opportunities for us to give back to these out-of-school time programs, whether it is financial contributions. But I think more than anything, a lot of organizations need mentors. The smaller organizations like Legacy was a grassroots organization – we always needed professional services and professional development. I mean these organizations are out there doing the work, and everybody out there listening if you could support that would be amazing. It makes a difference. 

  • ExpandLA
  • Legacy LA 
  • Ramona Gardens
  • Boyle Heights 
  • Out-of-School Time Learning
  • Mentors
  • Professional Development
  • UCLA


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