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Bringing together art, performance and social justice to empower self-expression for kids

Children’s After School Arts (CASA) is an independent, nonprofit creative arts after-school program with an emphasis on social justice and social-emotional development. CASA is located at Rooftop School in San Francisco. The programming integrates learning, social justice and the arts to instill a sense of community and justice in its students. Here, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk talks to Leslie Einhorn about her love of learning and the arts and how she envisions the future of her nonprofit.

Tell me about your journey to CASA San Francisco.

As a kid growing up in the seventies in Indiana, I was always trying to find my people and a place where I could feel free to express myself and be myself. I went to a performing arts high school and then on to Antioch College in Ohio, and eventually to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. While at Sarah Lawrence, I did an internship with a program in New York City called 52nd Street Project, which pairs professional theater artists with underserved youth.

After college, I worked as a teaching artist at several schools and after-school programs. When the director at one of the programs retired, I had the opportunity to take over the program, and turn it into what I thought it could be. That happened 22 years ago and we had about 28 kids. We now serve about 300 kids at one school called Rooftop School.

Can you elaborate on the elements of social justice in your work?

Children are curious about the world and they’re naturally inclined toward social justice in many ways. They want everything to be fair and for everyone to be represented. We work with them by introducing ideas and having conversations.

Each year we have a different theme and we explore that theme through visual arts and theater. Last year our theme was “Build bridges, not walls” which in addition to being a response to the election, was also a way to attempt to connect people. We create an original musical each year based on improvisations by our 5th graders. They decided that the characters in their play went to a middle school in Cleveland called Hammerhead Middle School; Hammerhead is a fictional president who had enacted a lot of policies that were anti-immigrant and racist and homophobic. The kids in the play were arguing about whether or not the name of the school should be changed. These are ideas that came from the CASA community and we brought it to life on stage.

How is your organization funded?

Right now, our biggest funding source is a city organization called theDepartment of Children, Youth and Their Families (DCYF). We are thrilled to have received a five-year grant through DCYF that helps support a portion of our scholarship families. CASA serves a truly diverse student body and within that diversity are some families of privilege that can afford a fee-based program. The money we get from tuition is supplemented by grant and donation income.

There’s got to be a significant amount of those children who need at least some assistance.

Absolutely. Right now, 30 percent of our families receive aid and we're trying to provide scholarships for up to 50 percent of our families.

What are your performance goals as an organization?

I find the best measure of our success is more anecdotal in terms of having the privilege of working with this community for 20+ years. I get to see students who have graduated and are out in the world and come back and visit CASA. At our recent musical, three former students did the fundraising pitch. These are all alumni- some of whom are headed off to college now, some that are in their twenties, one of whom started her own program. What’s so amazing for me is being able to see these remarkable young people take the mission and vision of CASA and bring it out into the world.

In what way do measure your program successes?

One of our board members is a clinical psychologist who has conducted quantitative and qualitative research within the CASA community. One study focused on the impact of creating an after-school program that celebrates diversity. The other was a response to a unit we did on gender identity. In this research study, students were interviewed at the beginning of the year and again after participating in a semester of programming about gender. We found some movement specifically around the way that youth view gender roles and ways that they feel — even in San Francisco — that they might feel trapped within a gender role.

What I think was the most interesting and possibly the most controversial about the data was the increase in students who felt that they did not identify as a boy or a girl by the end of the program. We dismantled a lot of the binary by looking at the continuum of gender. Most kids still clearly identified with the gender that they originally identified with, but there were certainly some who shifted from the programming that we were doing.

This board member asked me about publishing the results of this study, although she felt concerned that perhaps publishing the study could have a negative impact on other funding sources. But for me, I feel that we are in social justice work and these are the values that we believe in and I felt very strongly that we are not brainwashing the children, that we are working with the kids to look at some really common bias concepts.

The trickiest aspect about that particular survey was collecting consent forms from all of the families, finding the time and the space to do the surveys, and then follow up with the same kids at the end. But the results were so interesting that it is something we want to continue doing.

Additionally, as a DCYF grantee, we will be collecting participant data and monitoring the scope and impact of our programming. DCYF provides a very user-friendly platform where we’re able to input data and they analyze it.

What inspires you most about your work?

Definitely the kids, the youth that we serve. But additionally, I love the staff that I have the honor of working with. We have this beautiful, diverse group of artist-educators in the San Francisco. Our teachers represent a rainbow of gender, sexuality and ethnicity. These are brilliant people who are dedicated to serving youth at a nonprofit in a city where it has become difficult to thrive if you don’t work in tech. I love that they are choosing this path. We are so lucky to have such a fabulous, dedicated team.

What do you see as the future of your organization? You mentioned expanding your program to other schools.

Our five-year goal right now is to eliminate our waitlist at our current site. And once we have done that, we want to bring the mission to other schools. Real estate in San Francisco is pricey and trying to find spaces within schools is difficult. Add to that licensing, regulations, making sure that we have ample indoor and outdoor space to actually serve the youth, it’s super challenging.

One option we're considering is a kind of an a la carte CASA where we can bring the classes to other schools or even help with teacher training and show our unique and radical approach to arts education.

What would you tell others who are interested in starting a program like CASA?

I would recommend a team approach. I started this program alone and 20 years later, I have two incredible co-administrators, and that has really saved the program- and my sanity. Were I to start from the beginning, I would have started with partners. Not just because of the level of work, but because I value being able to look at the program and all of the decisions in the programming from a group perspective. It’s not just me pushing my own agenda. In addition to our powerhouse little team of administrators, I now also have an incredibly wonderful and active board, but it took a really long time to get there.

So I would say establish that strong board, establish a strong leadership team, and don’t go at it alone.

What else would you like to tell us about CASA and the Rooftop School?

We’re very excited to be performing and pitching our program at Main Stage Gay Pride in San Francisco this year. The Pride committee was looking for nonprofits that have positive LGBT messaging and work with youth. We have a resident drag queen and second-grade teacher who is going to be performing with some of our students.

Watch CASA and the Rooftop School's June 2018 fantastic performance here.

Know another nonprofit visionary? Contact editorial@missionbox.com

Leslie studied acting and playwriting at Antioch College in Ohio, Sarah Lawrence College and HB Studios in New York before moving to San Francisco in 1993. After joining CASA in 1995, Leslie developed programming with elements of theater, dance and social justice that creates a unique environment in which children are able to express themselves fully through art and performance

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