Our CASA brings academic opportunity to the west side of Salt Lake City

Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center, located at 1388 Navajo St. in Salt Lake City.

Story and photos by CHEYENNE PETERSON

As the school bell sounds with a shrill “brrring,” out walks 17-year-old Anwar with 10 of his classmates from Our CASA, an after-school program offered within the Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center. Anwar has a smile from ear to ear as he says goodbye to his classmates and teachers. He then makes his way to the front office, where he waits patiently for his little sister to join him so that they may catch the bus home to their family.

Students with smiles are something you see often in the west-side communities of Salt Lake City, due to the Our CASA organization.

University Neighborhood Partners, located at 1060 S. 900 West in Salt Lake City.

Our CASA (Communities, Aspiring, Succeeding and Achieving) is a program that has collaborated since 2016 with the University Neighborhood Partners (UNP), the Salt Lake City District, Google Fiber, and schools on the west side. The organization consists of students, parents, teachers, and community members who all want to support families living in west-side neighborhoods as they set their sights on higher education and rewarding careers.

Our CASA does this by creating college-themed “lounges” located in classrooms of schools and community centers. The goal of the room is to make it comfortable and home-like for students with couches, desks, computers, and other necessities. Hence, the room is known as a lounge.

According to Sol Jimenez, the education pathways coordinator at the Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center, the lounge not only creates a room and place where people can come and get together, but it also serves as a hub for access to college resources and information on continuing education. 

“It is also a place that would hold programing that would involve students, parents, families, and various different people to get more information in whatever that they need, in terms of building an education pathway,” Jimenez said.

UNP Associate Director Paul Kuttner said the first Our CASA lounge was created in 2013 in a combined effort of the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE) and a University of Utah social services student.

SLCSE housed the sole lounge until 2016 when Google Fiber chose to give a charitable donation of $50,000 to Our CASA. The funds were distributed equally to the six current Our CASA lounges located in Backman Elementary School, Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Campus, Northwest Middle School, Salt Lake Center for Science Education, UNP Hartland Partnership Center and West High School.

Kuttner joined the UNP staff in 2016. He said that at each school and community center, a team was brought together of students, parents, teachers, and administrators in order to decide what they planned to do with the money and what activities they wanted brought to the table.

The partners allowed the kids involved at the West High School location to name the program.

West High School in Salt Lake City, 241 N. 300 West.

“The name Our CASA was submitted by a student at West High School and from there we decided on it being the acronym for Communities, Aspiring, Succeeding and Achieving. Students wanted it to be something that bridges cultures, so they liked having one word in English and one word in Spanish. They wanted it to feel more home-like than school-like,” Kuttner said.

Each school and community center was given the creative freedom to use the Our CASA lounges differently. “We support that, because we figured people on the ground at the school know what’s best. We try to support them in using the space as best as they can,” Kuttner said.

He added that the focus is on community engagement and leadership of families and students. They all offer support for people as they pursue higher education and careers.

The organizers wanted the lounge to create a sense of belonging for students and families. “The feeling you belong and having a safe place to connect in your school is proven to be key for students’ success and family engagement,” Kuttner said.

Helping students apply to and get accepted into college is a focus of Our CASA. This directly impacts the students’ level of confidence and helps them to achieve their educational goals.

“It is wonderful and it’s helpful. It helped me maintain my grades. I get helped with homework and stuff that I don’t understand,” Anwar said. 

Jimenez was initially involved with the basic establishment at the community center. She has seen the number of students who attend Our CASA at Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center grow annually. “I think it’s a positive sign that we are doing what we are aiming to do,” she said.


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