Giving back to a community in need

UCSC alums well-represented in program that sends participants to high-need schools

Cassidy Kakin with two students from Clyde L. Fischer Middle School, where Kakin works. (P

Cassidy Kakin with two students from Clyde L. Fischer Middle School, where Kakin works. (Photo by Peggy Townsend)

Cassidy Kakin strides across the blacktop at Clyde L. Fischer Middle School in East San Jose, a strong wind tousling his dark hair. He's already met with a sullen girl who'd been disruptive in class and scheduled a stress-reducing walk with a student who was having trouble staying focused. Now he's zig-zagging off to talk to a boy who was causing problems in a classroom.

"Do you remember the contract you signed?" he asks the squirming boy whose face is nearly obscured by a grey hoodie. "This is a warning. OK?"

The boy agrees and slumps back to his classroom — another day in the life of Kakin, a 2013 politics graduate from College Nine, who is spending 12 months of service with City Year, a non-profit, AmeriCorps-sponsored program that works to increase attendance and test scores in high-need schools with tutoring and mentorship help.

Kakin, 21, is one of 35 UC Santa Cruz alumni working for City Year, making UCSC the No. 4 feeder school in the nation for the program.

"It seems to be a priority of these (UCSC) students to give back to a community in need," explains Evan Sevits, City Year's regional recruitment manager for the West Coast. "They are very passionate about social justice and are also very action-oriented, making City Year the perfect avenue for them upon graduation."

For Kakin, who graduated in three years from UCSC and plans to go to law school, City Year was a way to get some hands-on learning while giving back to the community.

"I focused on the politics of poverty and the welfare state in my studies," says Kakin, who grew up on the Flathead Reservation in Montana and in Marin. "The best way to get out of structural poverty is through education. When I read about City Year and the communities they work in, and the changes they make, that really inspired me."

Like other City Year members, Kakin's service is no laid-back gap year. With a stipend of only $900 a month, he lives with five other City Year corps members in a cramped apartment and works 11-hour days.

By 7:45 a.m., Kakin is usually in meetings at the neat brick-and-stucco school where 81 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunches and test scores are below state average — although rapidly improving, Kakin says. By 8:10, he and a dozen other City Year members may be out front, cheering students in for a day of learning.

Then, it's mentoring, tutoring, meeting with teachers, running after-school clubs in subjects like hip-hop or science, and leading Extended Learning Time programs in literacy and math until 6:45 p.m.

Kakin is also is in charge of what's called the "step-up room," where he guides students with classroom behavior problems through self-reflection on the decisions they made.

"Middle school is a roller coaster," Kakin says, noting that many students are not only dealing with adolescence but with poverty and family problems. "Some days, students are perfect angels. Other days, we've got 10 students in here."

According to national City Year statistics, 86 percent of teachers said having these 18- to 24-year-olds on campus improved the overall academic performance of their students. Forty-six percent of middle-schoolers, like those Kakin serves, increased school attendance by two full days.

"I feel like I'm doing something that matters," Kakin says. "I feel like I'm part of something big."

"The overall model makes a huge difference for these kids," says Daniel Montes, 22, a 2013 Kresge graduate who majored in sociology and Latin American and Latino studies, and is a City Year corps member at Clyde Arbuckle Elementary School in San Jose.

He runs an after-school class of 23 fifth-graders, engaging students in project-based learning that aims to make education fun. Along the way, he's not only learning leadership skills, he says, but also how support can make a difference in underfunded schools.

"Coming from a lower socio-economic status, I felt attracted to this program," Montes says. "In a sense, I wanted to give back to the community where I came from."

By 4 p.m., Kakin is stopping by a classroom full of energetic sixth- and seventh-graders busily working on art projects.

 "Mr. K helps us when we're stressed," says a 13-year-old student at the school. "He calms us down."