This year, CASA, the largest immigrant rights organization in Maryland, celebrates its 30th anniversary. Since 1985, the organization has been a leader in empowering, supporting and advocating for immigrants’ rights. Through a multifaceted approach of building a powerful immigrant movement, providing direct social services to individuals from over 90 countries and shaping the political process in Maryland and surrounding states, the organization has made strides in improving the quality of life in low-income immigrant communities.
In recent years, CASA has expanded its scope to include a more intentional focus on serving youth. In 2012, the organization was instrumental in the passage of the Maryland Dream Act—a proposal that would extend in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduate from high school in Maryland. Through these efforts, the organization ensured that more youth in the state would have the opportunity to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. In Baltimore, CASA’s Mi Espacio program provides a supportive environment where African American and Latino youth can gain the confidence, skills and knowledge they need to graduate from high school and achieve their post-secondary dreams. Despite these victories, recent emerging trends indicate that there is much more work to be done. In Langley Park, Maryland, where the main office of CASA sits, middle school students struggle in the key areas of reading and math. By the time students in Langley Park reach ninth grade, they are at risk, with only 45 percent of students graduating from high school in four years-nearly half of the national average (84%). In the face of this grim reality, CASA has developed a multifaceted approach to ensure that students are entering in and succeeding in their educational pursuits.
Fostering Parental Engagement
Research indicates that parents play a significant role in a student’s educational success. To this end, CASA actively engages parents with children in Langley Park. In 2014, CASA was awarded a prestigious Investing in Innovation grant from the Department of Education. The Learning Together program is an integrated, place-based initiative designed to build parents’ skills, confidence, and social capital to navigate the U.S. education system in spite of Limited English Proficiency (LEP), low-education attainment, and immigrant/cultural challenges. To date, the program has recruited nearly 300 families in Langley Park and is poised to increase these numbers over the coming months.
Advocating for Adequate Resources
In order for students to succeed, they need adequate resources. Under this premise, CASA has supported an increase in public school funding in Prince George’s County. By encouraging and supporting the community as they advocate for the increase in funding, CASA empowers parents to play an active role in their child’s future. Although the future of the proposed increase is uncertain, CASA has made strides in ensuring that parents in Prince George County feel comfortable in advocating for their child’s future.
Educating the Leaders of Tomorrow
Last year, CASA and the International Schools Network were awarded a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to help develop two new high schools focused on English Language Learner (ELL) students in Prince George’s County. These schools are a step in addressing the achievement gap for ELL students in the school system who lag behind their peers in educational achievement and graduation rates. This year, CASA launched a Leadership Academy which seeks to bring the immigrant rights movement closer to the experience of the larger progressive movement in the US that have historically faced some of the same challenges of social, economic and political exclusion. To that end, the organization is continuing to train individuals from across the state, including high school students through a youth program this summer, to become leaders in the community.
As the needs of immigrant communities in the United States and across the world continue to change and evolve, so will CASA. The organization has grown from a church basement to nine locations across the greater Washington, DC area. With a continued focus on providing services to and supporting adults, and an expanded focus on the education of Maryland’s youth, the organization is working hard to ensure the success of not only today’s immigrant community but tomorrow’s leaders.
Amilcar Guzmán lives in the Washington D.C. area and works as the Senior Manager for Data and Evaluation at CASA. He is also a part-time Ph.D student at the University of Maryland, College Park and writes about Latino postsecondary outcomes, college access and success and student loan debt. His research and writing has appeared in the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, Huffington Post, About Campus and Latino Rebels. You can follow him @AmilcarGuzman1.