CASA's Youth Engagement Initiative

The purpose of CASA’s Youth Engagement Initiative, a local immersion program, is to provide a transformative experience inspiring a community of learners who are creative, critical thinkers whose sense of compassion calls on them to form a more just society. The initiative is run by the Center for Community Service-Learning at USD. Approximately 80 work-study students are trained to be classroom mentors and spend 8-10 hours a week in a K-12 community site, with a community partner in the role of a co-educator.    

Creating a planter for a community gardenRecognizing the high-impact of place-based initiatives in closing the opportunity gap that exists in our current K-12 education system, classroom mentors are placed in low-income schools in the Linda Vista community. Almost 100% of the program’s resources are focused in one neighborhood to support classrooms, after school programs, counselors, resource teachers, and extra curricular activities that promote wellness (such as community gardens and self-expression through the arts). USD students, through supporting and co-creating programs in the Linda Vista community, are exposed to the learning that occurs outside of classroom walls. For many students, experiencing alternative ways of knowing and the wisdom of the community allows them to witness social theories come to life and/or to question what is being presented to them during their college classroom experiences. Community partners are also co-educators in the learning process. For instance, community partners co-run USD student trainings and are present to reinforce the pedagogy of the CASA’s YEI in its daily practice.       

CASA’s YEI is grounded in Critical Pedagogy, Culturally Responsive Teaching, and Social Constructivist theory. Classroom mentor trainings, reflections, and advising are centered on: 

  • knowing children are not passive recipients of knowledge;
  • honoring the culture, home language, neighborhood, and family construct of the child;
  • facilitating (rather than leading) the learning process;
  • connecting academics to the interest and context of the child;
  • creating opportunities for student-directed learning;
  • understanding the importance of building genuine relationships for both their learning and their students’ learning;
  • realizing the reciprocity in the learning process;
  • reflecting on their own areas experiences and how what is seen fits into a larger sociological picture.

Literacy program at CarsonIn addition to all YEI students attending two trainings per academic year, student leaders participate in four reflections and, afterwards, lead reflections with their cohort. This provides a space for peer advising, peer construction of knowledge and the opportunity to be practitioners of praxis (reflection and action), central to Critical Pedagogy. The reflections create new approaches to working with children, a changed understanding of themselves and how that impacts their interaction in the community, and/or a changed worldview that often shifts the interactions the college students have with the children with whom they work.

Outside of the reflections and trainings, one-on-one advising sessions are held (with staff and student leaders at CASA) to reinforce the pedagogy and learning and to ensure the college students are receiving the support they need to be successful, not only in their work-study position, but in their overall college experience. In addition to formal one-on-one advising, all 80 classroom mentors are invited into the CASA space for informal advising with staff, student leaders, and graduate students. The CASA space serves as a place where students can reflect on experiences, whether it be related to their K-12 work or not, to encourage the practice of reflection and the exploration of their passions. The CASA space is utilized by student leaders from a myriad of programs, and is central to the youth program because CASA models the holistic, student-centered, culturally responsive approach of CASA’s Youth Engagement Initiative.

It is important to note that 80% of the classroom mentors in the CASA’s Youth Engagement Initiative are first generation college students, students of color, and/or low-income students. As a result, CASA’s YEI serves USD’s campus inclusion efforts through the retention of underrepresented students. Classroom mentors practice joining community through both their involvement and leadership in CASA’s YEI and the intentional community CASA creates. This helps college students deepen their understanding of how to enter and feel connected to new communities on and off campus. The personal impact CASA has on the classroom mentors extends into the community. College feel more accessible to the Linda Vista children mentored because of the stories shared and relationships built with USD students. Most importantly, it creates a classroom mentor relationship that extends far beyond traditional tutoring and results in deeper reciprocal learning and empathy development for both the college and the K-12 student. 

Gifts received from the Youth to College experience
In the above image, USD students came up with words that speak to the gifts they received from the community, through their work with the CASA Youth Engagement Initiative.

young girl painting

CASA Youth Engagement Initiative

Youth to College Vision

“I learned at MIA to be self-confident about yourself. I learned this by the help of the staff here, they show you to think positive about yourself.” – Wendy, Middle School Student on Montgomery Intersession Academy (MIA), a collaboration between the YMCA, Bayside Community Center, Montgomery Middle School, and USD.

“I not only learned how to be a better writer and a better photographer, I learned to be a better person.” – Jacqui, Middle School Student

Classroom Mentor Stories

“I was working with an elementary school student who said she didn’t want to learn how to read. I tried to speak to her about high school and college, but learning to read for school didn’t seem to interest her. I discovered that she loves cars and is really looking forward to driving. I started bringing her pictures of road signs to help her realize she would have to learn to read in order to drive. She loved working on reading the road signs with me. After working on words related to driving, she started to improve her reading skills and, by the end of the school year, enjoyed reading on different topics.” Taylor, Classroom Mentor & Program Coordinator.

“I once read a book about Benito Juarez and it was amazing to see how excited my middle school mentee was to read about someone who resembled her. It made me realize the importance of having lessons in which the students can relate to culturally.” Diana, Classroom mentor and Program Coordinator. 

“Every Monday, I introduce the new spelling words to the students in my classroom and make sure they understand the words’ meanings. One girl is always very disruptive and distracting during this process. I graded their tests one day and realized her comprehension was extremely low. The next week, I made sure to give positive validation to other kids who tried, even when they weren’t sure if their response was correct. Soon, she began to do the same. Now she asks questions in front of the group, instead of acting out when she is confused. She also trusts me a lot more, which helps her willingness to learn. It reminded me that kids who act out do so for a reason, and it’s important to support them without judgment.” Kelly, Classroom Mentor and Program Coordinator. 

K-12 Students creating a community gardenMontgomery Middle School Students interviewed on their project at the Linda Vista Multicultural FairPicture of K-12 Students Learning Science from USD Chemistry ClubK-12 students getting help with homeworkUSD students teaching science