Empowering Students and Educators through Service Learning

By Cindy Zavala, Education Programs Associate, NCLR 

Our service-learning education program, Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción (CASA), is tackling serious issues. The goal of the fifth annual CASA Institute this year focused on how to equip middle school youth with the appropriate skills to identify a need in the Latino community and then develop an academic service plan to address that need.

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Students from seven states gathered at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles earlier this month to take on this challenge. And, thanks to the generous support and investment of State Farm, the Institute was able to host attendees from 12 different educational programs in Colorado, Texas, Oregon, Tennessee, Maryland, California, and Florida. Among them were students and teachers from East Austin College Prep, Bert Corona Leadership Institute, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, and Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School, to name a few.

The Cultural Bag

A major part of the CASA Institute included lessons on the service-learning cycle as well as an array of cultural activities. One such activity included the Cultural Bag. To highlight cultural awareness, students were tasked with creating a bag filled with phrases and drawings that displayed their interpretations of their own identity and culture.

“A cultural bag is something that each of us carries around all the time. The content of our bag defines who we are,” said Magdalena Mireles, NCLR California Regional Office Manager.

“Your race, ethnicity, age, gender, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, level of education, or religion are all traits that can go in your bag.” Mireles led the youth track in this year’s Institute.

As students filled their bags with their identity traits, they began to think about how their culture shaped their personality and life experiences.

Fun and Robotics

 Los Angeles made a perfect setting for a movie screening. Attendees were treated to a private viewing of the highly acclaimed documentary Underwater Dreams, written and directed by Mary Mazzio and narrated by Michael Peña.

Underwater Dreams tells the story of sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants and how they built an underwater robot from Home Depot parts and ended up defeating engineering powerhouse Massachusetts Institute of Technology at their competition. Not only were these boys only in high school when they entered the college competition but they were also living in poverty and faced many struggles to which several CASA attendees could relate.

(Click on the photos to enlarge)

Drawing on inspiration from the film, students were guided by DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Girls in building their own robots. DIY Girls works with young girls and focuses on helping them be successful in technology and engineering. One of their founders is also a Latina!

The interactive lesson guided students in using a motor, a battery, and a container to build a motorized robot that they could then take home.

The CASA Institute was a great learning experience for both students and educators. Students appreciated the opportunity to travel and for many it was there first time visiting Los Angeles. The change of setting and the new activities students and teachers participated in left them motivated and inspired.

“Super excited to see all the great ideas we will bring back to school!” said Angelica Lara of East Austin College Prep.

We’re hopeful educators like Lara left Los Angeles ready to take the steps and use the lessons they learned to support their students throughout the year in engaging with the CASA curriculum.

Convening Our Talents! The Third Annual CASA Youth Summit

By Feliza I. Ortiz-Licon, Ed.D., Senior Director, Education, NCLR

CASA_blogpic1The academic year for 2014-15 is coming to a close but the learning and activities continue for students in the Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción (CASA) service-learning project. On May 27-28, nearly 60 CASA coordinators and students from five NCLR Affiliate sites gathered in Los Angeles for the Annual CASA Youth Summit. The goal of the Summit was to provide students with a youth-centered program that invited networking, the exchange of ideas and a space to reflect on their signature service-learning projects.

A chief goal o f the CASA project is to expose middle school students to new experiences-socially, culturally and academically. To do that this year, the Youth Summit kicked-off activities at the historical Chavez Ravine-home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Our staff worked with the Dodgers’ Community Relations team to personalize the students’ visit to the ballpark with customized admission tickets and a running a score board message that read, “Welcome NCLR CASA Students.” The Dodgers ultimately lost their baseball game, but it didn’t damper student spirits as they reported having a “good time” at the game and enjoying the overall experience.

Summit attendees at Dodger Stadium

Summit attendees at Dodger Stadium

CASA_blogpic3On day two, students focused on the core of the Youth Summit, the CASA project expo. All school year, students focused on a genuine need in their community. To help identify that need, teachers guided students through the service-learning cycle and implemented the revised CASA curriculum to ground the service-learning projects in academic learning and cultural relevance to the Latino community. Students presented their projects that covered an array of topics including: agents of change, healthy living, poverty & homelessness, Latino voting patterns, and the meaning of an educated democracy. The projects were simply impressive. The topics addressed by these middle school students are dense and layered with complexities. Still, they were able to synthesize the information gathered, identify the need in their community, and implement service projects to address the need.

CASA_blogpic4In one case, students forged partnerships with organizations to build an urban garden and produce organic produce. They taught the community about healthy food options to help with the prevailing health issues in the Latino community like diabetes and cholesterol. Another CASA site conducted an analysis of the gap between eligible Latino voters and those who actually voted during the last presidential election. This information was used to develop a brochure that informs community members about the importance of voting and encourages youth to register to vote. Still, another site identified immigration as a pressing issue in their community and invited an immigration attorney to speak to parents and community members about Executive Orders like Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

It is comforting to know that our Latino youth are thinking critically about issues that impact their respective community and taking steps to address these issues through advocacy and action. We can all play a role, big or small, in this effort through mentorship, partnership, sponsorship or volunteering in a service action. So ask yourself, what can I do to uplift the Latino community through service-learning?

Grants for Service-Learning Projects Available, May 1 Deadline

Red BG JPGThe State Farm ® Youth Advisory Board (YAB) is now accepting service-learning grant applications! Every year, the YAB offers grants ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 to service-learning projects that create sustainable change in local communities across the country.

Schools and non-profit organizations are eligible to apply if they can show how it will impact student achievement in the public K-12 curriculum. Since launching eight years ago, the State Farm YAB has awarded more than $31.4 million in grants to various students and groups, impacting more than 18 million lives.

To be eligible, applicants must have a youth contact and an adult administrator. And, each grant request fall under:

Community Safety and Justice

  • Environmental Responsibility
  • Economic Inclusion and Financial Literacy
  • Access to Higher Education
  • Health and Wellness
  • Arts and Culture

Visit the State Farm YAB Facebook page and Twitter for more information about applying .

Applications are due May 1.

New Experience, New Mindset: Engaging Students through Service Learning

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” —O.W. Holmes, Jr.


A service learning student participates in a group project.

The historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles recently played host to an NCLR convening of students, parents, and teachers through the Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción (CASA) program. CASA is an NCLR project that explores how service learning can encourage community development and increase academic achievement. Six schools from across the country traveled to L.A. to engage in the fall CASA National Institute and were exposed to a culturally relevant service-learning model. In this year’s session, attendees participated in lessons from the newly revised CASA curriculum, gained tools to engage in service-learning projects, and networked with NCLR Affiliates through learning activities.

Dr. Feliza Ortiz-Licon, Senior Director, K–16 Education, set the tone with opening remarks that highlighted the importance of the CASA program and connected the mission of the service-learning project to NCLR’s civil rights advocacy work, as well as to the organization’s larger goal to uplift the Latino community. Thanks to the generous support and investment of State Farm, the CASA National Institute has evolved over the past few years to include three tracks aimed at teachers, students, and parents. “By engaging these stakeholders, NCLR hopes to equip participants—particularly youth—with skills, knowledge, and confidence, and to leverage their assets and resources to effectively address a need in the Latino community through school-based, service-learning projects,” said Ortiz-Licon.

Students participated in a variety of activities geared at familiarizing them with the service-learning cycle. For example, students participated in a mural tour hosted by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. The tour guided the students along historic Olvera Street and the 101 freeway to analyze the murals and how they play a part in Los Angeles’ culture. Students and parents learned the history of the city’s murals and gave their interpretations of the artists’ message. Many students understood the use of murals as a creative, expressive, and accessible platform to document history, celebrate culture, and denounce social injustices.

Other youth-oriented activities included the cultural awareness campaign “Being Latino means….” After the lesson, students were tasked with completing the phrase and proudly displaying their interpretations of Latinismo on poster board.

“The Being Latino activity was fun because we were able to reflect on our culture and why we’re proud of being who we are,” said one eighth-grader after the exercise.


CASA Institute teachers collaborate during a breakout session.

The two-day institute ended with the students, teachers, and parents boarding a bus to Pasadena, California, where they attended the 2014 NCLR ALMA Awards®. For many of the students, it was the highlight of the night as they were excited to dress up and catch a glimpse of their favorite stars.

“The students and teachers were very thankful to have been invited to the ALMA Awards,” said Magdalena Mireles, California Regional Office Manager, who led the youth track in this year’s institute.

The CASA National Institute received raved reviews from attendees. Students appreciated the opportunity to travel and meet new friends. Parents were excited for the learning experience and teachers emphasized the importance of complementing classroom teaching with real-world experiences that expose students to new ideas, places, and people that will widen their lives and perspectives.

Planning for next year’s CASA National Institute has already begun due to the overwhelming success of this year’s event.