Western, Shuksan students work and learn together through CSL program

The students are scattered throughout the library, sitting in groups of two or three and concentrating hard on the work before them.

At a long bank of computers, Shuksan Middle School students David Trejo and Sumeet Panwar, both 13, squint at their computer screens at a pair of flyers they’re creating to advertise Operation Change, an effort to increase awareness in the community of issues related to homelessness and violence. Western Washington University student Kaelee Berg leans in on occasion to offer advice.

Berg, a mentor in the Youth 4 R.E.A.L. program, spends two hours a week with students leading activities, group discussions and community outreach work.

“I have gained so much experience working with these students,” she says. “I have had the privilege of seeing these kids progress and grow throughout the year and feel that I am somewhat responsible for their growth. I have learned how to embrace challenge, exude patience and become dedicated and passionate about teaching.”

Berg helps out at Shuksan each week as part of Western’s Center for Service Learning, which puts WWU students, faculty and staff in touch with organizations in the community that could use their help.

“For us, it’s all about serving a community’s needs,” says Sara Radoff, the center’s program coordinator. “Our relationship is a web that starts at the nexus of what the school needs and how we can serve as partners in meeting that need.”

For all the work the center does with students at the middle school, Shuksan principal Andrew Mark and Shuksan sixth-grade teacher Melanie Kirkman decided to give the CSL the Shuksan Middle School 2008-2009 School Volunteer of the Year Award.

“We recommended them because of the great work they’ve done here,” Mark says. “The effort they’ve put in down here has been huge. The connection that Western has had with us is tremendous. It’s huge for our kids, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The Center for Service Learning is involved in three different efforts at Shuksan, all under the leadership of Woodring College of Education faculty member Angela Harwood: Youth 4 R.E.A.L., AVID and ALTO. The center’s work in the community is supported partially by Washington Campus Compact’s Retention Project grant and funding from the Whatcom Community Foundation.

Youth 4 R.E.A.L.

“The goal is to provide positive role models to these youth, something that’s consistent in their lives,” says Trisha O’Hara, the Retention Project coordinator with the Center for Service Learning.

The program is aimed at supporting youth who benefit from extra encouragement to achieve in school and opportunities to develop healthy peer and adult relationships.

“They’re the ones who could slip through the cracks,” O’Hara says.

R.E.A.L. is an acronym standing for Releationship, Experience, Action and Leadership, skills that the students involved are developing week by week. Youth lead workshops about things they’re interested in or passionate about, participate in trust-building activities and form R.E.A.L. Action Teams that focus on specific issues the students want to see changed in their community. Today, a group of students in Youth 4 R.E.A.L. are planning to build a Web site that educates fellow students about the dangers of joining a gang. They’re also hoping to put together an anonymous tips Web site that would allow students to report things such as bullying, gang activity and vandalism. A couple of the students are drafting a letter to principal Mark asking for permission to go ahead with the project.

A typical day is just like this one: Students gather for a brief group check-in on their day and how they are doing. Then they participate in an opening activity of some sort. Today they head outside, burning up their energy in a long game of freeze tag. Once the students are all worn out, they head back into the library to dive into their R.E.A.L. Actions  for an hour or so. One group of students, having held a profitable bake sale earlier in the day, heads off to the pet store to buy accessories for the kittens living in the cat shelter there.

“The program is definitely making a difference,” says Panwar, a seventh-grader at Shuksan. “Whenever I’m having a bad week, I always look forward to Youth 4 R.E.A.L.”

These regular interactions with younger students are what this program is all about, says WWU student Christina Everett.

“I think that Western students can have a great impact on the students not only at Shuksan but at any school,” she says. “A WWU student who is where many of these students hope to go, but may not be sure how to get there, college, can really benefit from having a consistent mentor in their life, someone who can be encouraging and supportive as they go through the trials and joys of middle school.”


ALTO, A Latino Team Organization, was started at the behest of a handful of Shuksan students themselves. Roughly 30 Shuksan students are involved, and all 11 mentors for the program are WWU students from the M.E.Ch.A student club who volunteer their time.

“The program exposes (the members of ALTO) to college students, to role models to look up to,” Kirkman says.

The Shuksan students and mentors in the program put on a Cinco de Mayo lunch in May, with the Shuksan students creating all the food.

“The students take so much pride in being part of that group,” O’Hara says.

The program has really taken off in the year it’s been around, Mark says.

“The mentors took that program up a whole magnitude,” he says.


AVID stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. Students in AVID are high achievers whose parents didn’t attend college.

“There are really high expectations for these students, and they’re put into high-level classes at school,” Radoff says.

The WWU student mentors sit with the AVID students for a few hours per week in tutorial sessions aimed at helping the students succeed in their higher-level classes.

To qualify for AVID, students must have mid-level grades, typically B’s and C’s, and have a desire to attend college, says Kirkman, who – in addition to being the school’s Youth 4 R.E.A.L. coordinator and a sixth-grade teacher – is an AVID teacher at Shuksan.

Making a difference

For David Morrin, a master’s in teaching student at WWU, Western’s collaboration with Shuksan is an important one.

“The kids there benefit greatly from trustworthy college-going adults who genuinely make them believe that college is possible and important,” he says. “Even for those students who won't go to college it's important to foster skills in communication, teamwork, etc.”

Both sets of students – those at Western and those at Shuksan – benefit from the Center for Service Learning’s efforts at the school, says WWU student Jamie Daniels.

“Western students need to see how upbeat and energetic middle school students are, and need a reminder that there is more to life than the paycheck and the grade,” she says. “Shuksan students need to see positive role models that have gone through difficult times and yet succeeded in school and life. They need to see different career options and different paths people take in their life to encourage positive changes or improvements to their own lives. Western and Shuksan students need each other to grasp the finer things in life; to not forget to have fun and remember the important things in their lives.”