Partner and Volunteer Highlight: Two National Hispanic Heritage Month Partners
In celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 - Oct. 15, Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) recognizes the contributions of Hispanic Americans to our nation and community. In our September partnership story, we highlight two long-standing ACPS community partners serving the Alexandria area, Casa Chirilagua and Liberty’s Promise, and focus on how their work in our community helps to inspire future generations of Hispanic youth.
“Kids Club, Teens Club and Casa to College — they encompass what we call our leadership pipeline,” explains Adriana Gomez Schellhaas, executive director at Casa Chirilagua. These programs provide space for children of varying age groups to receive academic support, including reading and homework help. Additionally, they offer learning opportunities for students to become more self-aware and help them manage stress and conflict. Casa Chirilagua helps young people realize that their voice matters and how to use it effectively. “It says I am in charge of my decisions and my words,” adds Gomez Schellhaas.
Casa Chirilagua employs a holistic approach, developing a relationship with the entire family as it provides positive after-school activities in Alexandria’s Arlandria area.
Kids Club is for students in Grades 1-5, providing math and reading support, computer practice, physical movement and activities in the arts. Teens Club and Casa to College are for older students. Teens Club offers evening and weekend extracurricular opportunities for middle school students, with social and developmental support via group classes and service-learning projects. Casa to College was developed by high school students in 2018 to help Casa Chirilagua fill a need for this age group. It offers professional learning skills to prepare for future success, internships and college visits that include families in the process. As Gomez Schellhaas sums it up: “The mentorship provided by Casa is invaluable.”
A student poses with his family during Casa Chirilagua's Kids Club fifth grade graduation event.
Another organization that reaches out to young immigrants is Liberty's Promise. The organization offers programs such as Civics and Citizenship, which is in English, and Civic Engagement for Beginning English Language Learners (CE-BELL), which is in Spanish. “We talk about civic engagement but also community involvement as one of our core themes,” explains Melissa Guerrero Gelinas, director of Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. Programs for Liberty’s Promise.
Guerrero Gelinas adds that these programs offer young immigrants, ages 15-21, a greater sense of confidence in themselves and the acknowledgement that their strengths and cultural diversity are valued. She says these programs familiarize young immigrants with how the government works and who their representatives are, and engage them in Alexandria community events such as park clean-ups. Liberty’s Promise also strives to help immigrant youth pursue higher education and embark upon meaningful careers.
Expanding on its success with high school students, Liberty’s Promise has piloted a middle school program in Baltimore County which is now in its second year. Seeing a need for this program at Francis C. Hammond Middle School and George Washington Middle School, Guerrero Gelinas says her organization is working toward bringing this program aimed at a younger age group to Alexandria, potentially by the 2023-24 school year. She believes that reaching students at the middle school level — and putting the focus on academics to achieve their career goals — can help make the transition to high school and beyond easier.
Another Liberty’s Promise program is Opportunities Plus. It offers youth who have work authorization and live in low-income households internship placement at nonprofits, city hall or local businesses. Prior to participation, students take part in an intensive job skills workshop, learning how to write a resume and cover letter, honing their interviewing skills and learning about workplace culture.
Students visit the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park as part of Liberty's Promise Civic Engagement for Beginning English Language Learners program.
ACPS partnerships with organizations such as Casa Chirilagua and Liberty’s Promise are yet another avenue of support in helping our school division achieve its goal of providing an equitable education for all students. In working with Mount Vernon Community School, Gomez Schellhaas said she realized the importance of building a relationship between school staff and families to achieve the best educational outcomes. She also underscored the benefits of ACPS providing easily accessible translation services so families can communicate in their native languages. Gomez Schellhaas said this helps families weigh in on issues that may affect their students. She adds that, just like ACPS, Casa Chirilague is also committed to essential social, emotional and academic learning (SEAL) as it helps students to succeed.
Guerrero Gelinas says in order to “even the playing field,” it is important to provide a support network that extends beyond educational support. She believes that introducing young immigrants to mentors from similar backgrounds who have realized their life’s dreams will serve as inspiration that they, too, can achieve success in education and beyond. Guerrero Gelinas adds that, by educating youth about their opportunities, Liberty’s Promise has seen increases in school attendance, self-esteem and grades among participating students. And, she notes that the Alexandria program has achieved a 92.3% graduation rate for youth in the program.
“The ACPS educational community is extremely fortunate to partner with community organizations such as Casa Chirilagua and Liberty's Promise,” said Kurt Huffman, executive director of School and Community Partnerships at ACPS. “They support our goal of working collaboratively as part of a successful educational ecosystem — community partners, school and division leadership, families, students, staff — to achieve equity in education and success for all students.”
- Partner & Volunteer Highlight