Sandra McBrayer, CEO, The Children’s Initiative
California is the only state in the country to provide $550 million in after-school care for children, a pool of funds that cannot be touched even during a budget deficit. This is the case, in part, because of Sandra McBrayer’s work. Her Children’s Initiative after school work has supported programs in over 300 schools, serving 44,000 children in San Diego County with annual state funding of $56 million. More profoundly, her development of the San Diego After School Consortium has created a partnership among school districts to develop and share money and resources, previously unheard of in the education system.
Not what you’d expect from someone who nearly dropped out of high school. One of six children of Marine Corps parents, Sandra grew up in — and regularly resisted — a tightly structured environment. Her parents still joke that she was the first child who ever said “no” or “why?” to them. In school, Sandra rarely was engaged by teachers who insisted on “sitting, listening, and regurgitating.”
College was a much better fit for her inquiring mind, but Sandra needed a job. She landed almost accidentally in a children’s group home as a teacher’s assistant — and quickly discovered her calling. In her at-risk students, she recognized kindred spirits, curious learners ill-served by a system rooted in hierarchical structure and authority. In order to reach them, she had to break out of the teaching orthodoxy. “I had to show them how learning is important even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing – for example, showing that when they divided ‘white powder’, they were really doing fractions. They already knew math – they just didn’t know they knew it.”
After three years of teaching, and of continually butting up against convention, Sandra understood that working with individual children could change their lives — but wouldn’t fix a fundamentally broken system, one that was “institutionally afraid of life.” She lobbied for change in the system but nobody believed it possible. Eventually, “I heard no so often I just said “Watch this” and dedicated myself full time to my idea, even though it meant foregoing things like weekends or vacations.” She founded what’s now called Monarch High School, dedicated to teaching homeless and other unattended kids.
Always more concerned with those not in school than those who are, Sandra pursued children sleeping in underpasses or on rooftops. “If you don’t have a high school diploma,” she says, “your success in life is severely constrained. I simply had to get them through high school – it wasn’t their fault that they had these awful circumstances that didn’t let them grow. I don’t think there’s a child that can’t learn – there may just be a 100 different ways to get there.” So Sandra’s team fed their students, but offered math lessons along with the food; they did the children’s laundry but taught measurement with the whites and colors; taught reading by encouraging magazines and comic books. Simply put, they brought learning to the kids, rather than forcing students into a standard curriculum.
Monarch proved that unconventional teaching methods could engage untraditional learners. It also demonstrated that classroom instruction had to be supported by and integrated with a host of strategies across the community and society. The Children’s Initiative coordinates programs in juvenile justice, poverty, youth suicide, and substance abuse, among others. It has engaged business leaders who want a stronger workforce and police officers looking to lower crime. Sandra has reached out to the other stakeholders as well – educators, politicians, families. “I wanted them all in the room, because they all own part of the system.”
Or rather, they represent the many complementary but typically disconnected systems that together determine the quality of children’s future. Sandra understands that her success hinges on helping these systems work together. “Many programs fail because they just focus on one thing and not the broader picture. There’s a shared responsibility for every social issue – and you need all stakeholders at the table.”
Many thanks to Keith Hammonds for editorial input.